An Introduction To Zener Diodes

[Afroman] is back again with another great tutorial video on the basics of electronics. This time it’s zener diodes.

Page three or four of every ‘beginners guide to electronics’ covers a diode as, “a component that only allows current to flow in one direction.” This is true; a diode only allows current to flow in one direction. However, like any depth of knowledge, the dialectic of diodes quickly turns to a series of, ‘but..’ and ‘however…’ statements.

A zener diode is like a normal silicon diode, where a forward biased diode will pass current with a ~1 volt drop. When a zener diode is reversed biased, there’s a different voltage drop, annotated as Vz on the datasheet. When reversed biased, current cannot flow across the diode unless the voltage is above Vz. This is what makes zeners useful for a bunch of applications.

[Afroman] goes over a few of the most useful applications of zeners, including a diode clamping circuit. This circuit will clamp the voltage to a maximum of Vz, helpful when you’re feeding a signal into an analog input. This voltage clamping circuit can be used in some interesting applications. If you feed a sine wave or other signal though the circuit, you can clip the signal.

Zeners can also be used as a very crude, low current, low accuracy power supply. If you’re looking for a voltage regulator for a microcontroller that’s impossibly easy and you’re all out of 7805s, pick up a zener. It’s not the basis of a good power supply, but it does work.

Diode Steering and Counting With A 555

While you’re not likely to see this technique used very much today, there’s a lot you can do with a 555, some logic chips, and a handful of diodes. [Fran] is here with a great example of using these simple parts to build a circuit that counts to zero, using parts you can probably find under your workbench.

[Fran] was inspired to build this diode counter from one of [Dave]’s Mailbags and [Colin Mitchell]’s 555 circuit book. The 555 is the standard component found in every parts drawer, but since we have tiny microcontrollers that cost the same as a 555, we’re not seeing the artistry of a simple timer chip and a few logic chips much these days.

This circuit began with a 555 attached to a 4017B decade counter. Simply by tying a few LEDs to the output of the 4017, [Fran] made a bunch of LEDs light up in sequence. Cool, but nothing unexpected. The real trick uses a few diodes and six LEDs to build a scanner – a line of LEDs that will blink from left to right, then right to left. Impressive, and with a little more circuitry it’s a Larson Scanner, as seen in Battlestar Galactica and Knight Rider.

The real trick for this technique comes when [Fran] pulls out a piece of protoboard, several dozen diodes, and seven old transistors to have a seven-segment display count from zero to nine. The 4017 simply counts out on ten pins, and each of these pins is wired to a bunch of diodes for each segment in the display. Add in a few resistors and a transistor, and [Fran] replicated what’s inside a seven-segment driver with discrete parts.

If counting to zero isn’t enough proof that you can do a whole lot with some diodes and logic chips, how about programming an Atari 2600 with one?

Video below.

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Homebrew Programming With Diodes

diode

Diode matrices were one of the first methods of implementing some sort of read only memory for the very first electronic computers, and even today they can be found buried deep in the IPs of ASICs and other devices that need some form of write-once memory. For the longest time, [Rick] has wanted to build a ROM out of a few hundred diodes, and he’s finally accomplished his goal. Even better, his diode matrix circuit is actually functional: it’s a 64-byte ROM for an Atari 2600 containing an extremely simple demo program.

[Rick] connected a ton of 1N60 diodes along a grid, corresponding to the data and address lines to the 2600’s CPU. At each intersection, the data lines were either unconnected, or tied together with a diode. Pulling an address line high or low ([Rick] hasn’t posted a schematic) pulls the data line to the same voltage if a diode is connected. Repeat this eight times for each byte, and you have possibly the most primitive form of read only memory.

As for the demo [Rick] coded up with diodes? It displays a rainbow of colors with a black rectangle that can be moved across the screen with the joystick. Video below.

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Video: The Lowly Diode — Umpteen Functions with Only Two Pins

 

The lowly diode, a device with only two leads, can nonetheless do many things. Diodes can detect, rectify, suppress, emit light, detect light, change capacitance, emit microwaves and more. This wide range of use means diodes are included in almost every design and it’s well worth learning more about the inner workings of all kinds of diodes.

My introduction to diodes started like many of my generation with a homemade crystal radio set. My first diode was a piece of pencil graphite in contact with an old fashion safety razor with the joint of the two dissimilar materials — graphite and steel — creating the diode. In this configuration the diode is said to be “detecting” which is the act of turning a weak radio signal into a weak audio signal. At least in my home town of Marion Indiana, one radio station was stronger than the other so that I didn’t have to listen to two stations at once.

Germanium Glass Diode
The venerable 1N34A Germanium Signal Diode.

I eventually learned about “real” diodes and the 1N34A Germanium diode was my “goto” diode into my teens. Nowadays looking into a modern version of the 1N34A you can still see the semblance of the old “cat’s whisker” by looking carefully into the diode.

A quick and somewhat inaccurate semblance of the way a diode works can be demonstrated with marbles and jacks representing negative electrons and positive “holes”. Holes are basically an atom missing an electron due to the combination of elements, a process known as doping. Join me after the break for the explanation.

Demonstrating a PN Junction with marbles and Jacks.
Demonstrating a PN Junction with marbles and Jacks.

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Making a Diode Matrix ROM

Here is a nice project that allows youngsters (but also adults!) to actually see the data stored in a Read Only Memory (ROM). The memory shown in the picture above is made of diodes. [Scott] made it as a part of his Barcamp Fall 2013 presentation about visualizing ROMs. He starts his write-up by stating the obvious: this memory is not practical. Nonetheless, it still was a fun exercise to do. [Scott] then greatly described all the different kinds of read only memories that you can find out there, with a few words explaining how they work. In his diode ROM, bits are ‘programmed’ by adding (or not) a diode between a given data line (anode) and an address line (cathode). When pulling low a given address line, the corresponding data line will only be pulled low if a diode is present. [Scott] finally checked his circuit by using a very old device programmer which could only be run in DOS.

3W handheld laser raises hope for a real Lightsaber someday

That banner image may seem a little bit theatric, but it’s a good representation of what this 3W handheld laser can really do. Turn the thing on in a slightly smoky room and it looks exactly like a thin beam Lightsaber.

What kind of tricks would you expect this thing to perform? Perhaps it’ll pop some black balloons? Prepare to be shocked because it’s orders of magnitude more powerful than that. The video below shows it burning and igniting a collection of items almost instantly. [Styropyro] tested his creation by igniting paper, cardboard, flash paper, flash powder, burning through a stick of wood, and igniting an undisclosed substance at the end of the video. But one of our favorites is when he drives a solar powered toy car with the intense beam.

He pulled the diode from a DLP projector, and drives it with a pair of 18650 Lithium Ion batteries which are commonly found in laptops. He made the enclosure himself. It looks great but we can’t help but wonder if the components would fit in a painstakingly made replica.

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DVD laser diode used to build a laser engraver

[Johannes] has been reading Hackaday for years but this is the first project he’s tipped us off about. It’s a laser engraver built from a DVD burner diode (translated). It turned out so well we wonder what other projects he’s forgotten to tip us off about?

This is the second CNC machine he’s seen through from start to finish. It improves upon the knowledge he acquired when building his CNC mill. The frame is built from pine but also uses bits of plywood and MDF. It can move on the X and Y axes, using drawer sliders as bearings. The pair of blue stepper motors drive the threaded rods which move the platform and the laser mount. Just above the laser he included a small DC fan to keep it from burning up. The control circuitry is made up of an Arduino Nano and a stepper motor driver board. Catch a glimpse of the engraver cutting out some stencil material after the break.

There must be something about Spring that brings out the urge to work with laser diodes. We just saw a similar 1W cutter last week.

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