Choosing A ‘Scope: Examining Bandwidth

A few weeks ago I asked the Hackaday community for some help and advice in buying a new budget oscilloscope. Thank you very much to those of you who responded both here online and in person among my friends closer to home. I followed the overwhelming trend in the advice I received, and bought myself a Rigol DS1054z, an instrument with which I am very happy. It’s a nominally a 50 MHz scope, but there’s a software hack that can bring it up to 100 MHz. How fast can it go?

My trusty Cossor, its 2 MHz bandwidth as yet unverified.
My trusty Cossor, its 2 MHz bandwidth as yet unverified.

This question became a mini scope-shootout after a conversation with my Hackaday colleague [Elliot] about measuring oscilloscope bandwidth, and then my fellow Oxford Hackspace members producing more than one scope for comparison. You know who you are, thank you. I found myself with ready access to several roughly equivalent models and one very high-end one in specification terms representing different strata of test equipment manufacture, and with the means to examine their performance.

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A Quickly-Hacked-Together Avalanche Pulse Generator

There are times when you make the effort to do a superlative job in the construction of an electronic project. You select the components carefully, design the perfect printed circuit board, and wait for all the pieces to come together as they come in the mail one by one. You then build it with tender care and attention, printing solder paste and placing components by hand with a fastidious attention to detail. There follows an anxious wait by the reflow oven as mysterious clouds of smoke waft towards the smoke detector, before you remove your batch of perfect boards and wait for them to cool.

Alternatively, there are other times when you want the device but you’re too impatient to wait, and anyway you’ve only got half of the components and a pile of junk. So you hack something a bit nasty together on the copper groundplane of a surplus prototype PCB in an evening with ‘scope and soldering iron. It’s not in any way pretty but it works, so you use it and get on with your life.

Our avalanche pulse generator schematic. The pulse generator itself is the single 2N3904 on the right.
Our avalanche pulse generator schematic. The pulse generator itself is the single 2N3904 on the right.

When you are a Hackaday writer with some oscilloscope bandwidths to measure, you need a picosecond avalanche pulse generator, and you need one fast. Fortunately they’re a very simple circuit with only one 2N3904 transistor, but the snag is they need a high voltage power supply well over 100 V. So the challenge isn’t making the pulse generator, but making its power supply.

For our pulse generator we lacked the handy Linear Technologies switcher used by the avalanche pulse generator project we were copying. It was time for a bit of back-to-basics flyback supply creation, robbing a surplus ATX PSU for its base drive transformer, high voltage diode and capacitor, and driving it through a CRT line output transistor fed by a two-transistor astable multivibrator. Astoundingly it worked, and with the output voltage adjusted to just over 150V the pulse generator started oscillating as it should.

We’ve looked at avalanche pulse generators once before here at Hackaday, and very recently we featured one used to measure the speed of light. We’ll be using this one tomorrow for a ‘scope comparison.

The Fastest Rise Time In The West: Making A Truly Quick Pulse Edge

When we are taught about oscillators as newbie engineers, we are shown a variety of waveforms on an oscilloscope or in a textbook. This is a sine wave, they say, this is a sawtooth, this is a square wave, and so on. We’re taught to look at the lines on the screen as idealised, a square wave is truly square, and the transition from low to high voltage and back again is instantaneous.

In most cases this assumption is harmless. If we look into the subject a little deeper we learn that what seemed an instantaneous cliff-face is in fact a very steep slope, but when a circuit does its business in milliseconds there is usually no harm in ignoring a transition time measured in nanoseconds. The glue logic for your Arduino project can take its time.

Sometimes though, the rise time of a logic transition is important. The application that prompted this article was the measurement of oscilloscope bandwidth by looking at how quickly the ‘scope catches up with a pulse that exceeds its bandwidth, for example. When the instrument can happily measure the transition times of all your usual  pulse generators, something out of the ordinary is called for. So it’s worth taking a look at the rise times you’d expect from everyday circuitry, examining a few techniques for generating rise times that are much faster.
Continue reading “The Fastest Rise Time In The West: Making A Truly Quick Pulse Edge”

Testing the Speed-of-Light Conspiracy

There are a number of ways to measure the speed of light. If you’ve got an oscilloscope and a few spare parts, you can build your own apparatus for just a few bucks. Don’t believe the “lies” that “they” tell you: measure it yourself!

OK, we’re pretty sure that conspiracy theories weren’t the motivation that got [Michael Gallant] to build his own speed-of-light measurement rig, but the result is a great writeup, and a project that includes one of our favorite circuits, the avalanche transistor pulse generator.

setupThe apparatus starts off with a very quickly pulsed IR LED, a lens, and a beam-splitter. One half of the beam takes a shortcut, and the other bounces off a mirror that is farther away. A simple op-amp circuit amplifies the resulting pulses after they are detected by a photodiode. The delay is measured on an oscilloscope, and the path difference measured with a tape measure.

If you happen to have a photomultiplier tube in your junk box, you can do away with the amplifier stage. Or if you have some really fast logic circuits, here’s another project that might interest you. But if you just want the most direct measurement we can think of that’s astoundingly accurate for something lashed up on breadboards, you can’t beat [Michael]’s lash-up.

Oh and PS: He got 299,000 (+/- 5,000) km/sec.

The Development Of A Hardware Random Number Generator


[Ian] had a need for a lot of random numbers. There are dozens of commercial offerings when it comes to RNGs, but there are also hundreds of different ways for an electronics hobbyist to shoot random bits at a serial port. One of these methods is an RNG based on the avalanche breakdown noise in a PN junction. As with any circuit in hobbyist electronics, there are dozens of prototypes floating out there on the web, but not too many finished projects. [Ian] decided he would build one of these RNGs as a prototype and bring it to something resembling a finished project.

An avalanche noise RNG takes advantage of the fact that a strongly reverse-biased PN junction, like one found in a transistor, will create a condition where one electron knocks another electron out of place, leading to a sustained chain reaction. It’s quantum, it’s chaotic, it makes for a great source for a random number generator, and there are already dozens of prototype circuits around the Internet.

[Ian] took one of these circuit designs by [Will Ware] and started the iterations that would lead to a finished design. Round one was a simple PCB with the basic circuit and a power supply. Just a few transistors, resistors, and a DC/DC boost converter. Confirming the circuit was generating noise, the next iteration brought in an ADC and an ARM micro with a USB interface. Iterating over this again with an improved ADC – 20 megasamples per second – the design finally reached a point where a final PCB could be designed.

In the end, [Ian] turned a simple circuit that could have been built on a breadboard into a USB device that throws 9kB/s of random data into a computer. The data are actually good, too: the project passed most of the Dieharder test suite, making it very useful for whatever crypto or gaming application [Ian] has in mind.

Avalanche pulse generator design


This avalanche pulse generator is a great way to test your mettle as an Electronics Engineer. The challenge is to truly understand how each part of the design works. We certainly got a failing grade when first studying the schematics more than a week ago. But we’re slowly beginning to understand what’s going on under the hood.

The concept of an avalanche transistor is some wicked voodoo from the analog side of the street which leverages a transistor’s breakdown voltage to achieve a predictable result. In laymen’s terms it (mis)uses a transistor to produce a really fast pulse. The write-up linked above references several previous avalanche pulse generator designs, but this one is a bit different in how it produces about 50V from a pair of AAA batteries using a multivibrator circuit.

Even if you have no idea what’s going on here you may be interested in the last few paragraphs where the circuit is measured using a cutting-edge Teledyne LeCroy Wavemaster 820Zi-A. That’s a 20 GHz scope with a 15.3″ screen which you’ll never ever own.