Understanding The Quartz Crystal Resonator

Accurate timing is one of the most basic requirements for so much of the technology we take for granted, yet how many of us pause to consider the component that enables us to have it? The quartz crystal is our go-to standard when we need an affordable, known, and stable clock frequency for our microprocessors and other digital circuits. Perhaps it’s time we took a closer look at it.

The first electronic oscillators at radio frequencies relied on the electrical properties of tuned circuits featuring inductors and capacitors to keep them on-frequency. Tuned circuits are cheap and easy to produce, however their frequency stability is extremely affected by external factors such as temperature and vibration. Thus an RF oscillator using a tuned circuit can drift by many kHz over the period of its operation, and its timing can not be relied upon. Long before accurate timing was needed for computers, the radio transmitters of the 1920s and 1930s needed to stay on frequency, and considerable effort had to be maintained to keep a tuned-circuit transmitter on-target. The quartz crystal was waiting to swoop in and save us this effort.

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A Vintage Single Transistor LED Blinker

[Eric Wasatonic] had a box of SWB2433 transistors that he had very little information about. In order to discover their properties, he fired up his curve tracer to compare these transistors with more common ones. He noticed the SWB2433 exhibited negative resistance while the similar curves of a 2n3904 didn’t. Then he reverse-biased the two transistors: the negative resistance region on the 2n3904 was less than that of the SWB2433, but it was there, and a 2n2222 had a bigger region. Using this knowledge, he developed a relaxation oscillator circuit which uses a negatively biased transistor.

Using one transistor, one resistor and one capacitor, he describes the circuit and how the components affect the frequency of the sawtooth wave the oscillator creates. [Eric] uses the oscillator to build a simple LED blinker and shows what happens when he changes the transistor and adjusts the voltage or resistance. He also shows the circuit as a tone generator and adjusts the tone by replacing the resistor with a potentiometer. And then, for fun, he modifies the circuit to show the oscillator as an AM transmitter. Check out his video after the break.

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Soft Robot With Microfluidic Logic Circuit

Perhaps our future overlords won’t be made up of electrical circuits after all but will instead be soft-bodied like ourselves. However, their design will have its origins in electrical analogues, as with the Octobot.

The Octobot is the brainchild a team of Harvard University researchers who recently published an article about it in Nature. Its body is modeled on the octopus and is composed of all soft body parts that were made using a combination of 3D printing, molding and soft lithography. Two sets of arms on either side of the Octobot move, taking turns under the control of a soft oscillator circuit. You can see it in action in the video below.

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Russian Decapping Madness

It all started off innocently enough. [mretro] was curious about what was inside a sealed metal box, took a hacksaw to it and posted photographs up on the Interwebs. Over one hundred forum pages and several years later, the thread called (at least in Google Translate) “dissecting room” continues to amaze.

h_1466184174_4168461_2f4afb42b7If you like die shots, decaps, or teardowns of oddball Russian parts, this is like drinking from a firehose. You can of course translate the website, but it’s more fun to open it up in Russian and have a guess at what everything is before peeking. (Hint: don’t look at the part numbers. NE555 is apparently “NE555” in Russian.)

From a brief survey, a lot of these seem to be radio parts, and a lot of it is retro or obsolete. Forum user [lalka] seems to have opened up one of every possible Russian oscillator circuit. The website loads unfortunately slowly, at least where we are, but bear in mind that it’s got a lot of images. And if your fingers tire of clicking, note that the URL ends with the forum page number. It’d be a snap to web-scrape the whole darn thing overnight.

We love teardowns and chip shots, of old gear and of new. So when you think you’ve got a fake part, or if you need to gain access to stuff under that epoxy blob for whatever reason, no matter how embarrassing, bring along a camera and let us know!

Thanks [cfavreau] for the great tip!

Atmel Removes Full-Swing Crystal Oscillator

It is one of our favorite chips, and the brains behind the Arduino UNO and its clones, and it’s getting a tweak (PDF). The ATmega328 and other megaX8-series chips have undergone a subtle design change that probably won’t affect you, but will cause hours of debugging headaches if it does. So here’s your heads-up. The full-swing oscillator driver circuitry is being removed. As always, there’s good news and bad news.

The older ATmega chips had two different crystal drivers, a low-power one that worked for lower speeds, and higher-current version that would make even recalcitrant crystals with fat loading capacitors sing. This “full-swing” crystal driver was good for 16 MHz and up.

The good news about the change is that the low-power crystal driver has been improved to the point that it’ll drive 16 MHz crystals, so you probably don’t need the full-swing driver anymore unless you’re running the chip at 20 MHz (or higher, you naughty little overclocker).

This is tremendously important for Arduinos, for instance, which run a 16 MHz crystal. Can you imagine the public-relations disaster if future Arduinos just stopped working randomly? Unclear is if this is going to ruin building up a perfboard Arduino as shown in the banner image. The full-swing oscillator was so robust that people were getting away with a lot of hacky designs and sub-optimal loading capacitor choices. Will those continue to work? Time will tell.

The bad news is that if you were using the full-swing oscillator to overcome electrical noise in your environment, you’re going to need to resort to an external oscillator instead of a simple crystal. This will increase parts cost, but might be the right thing to do anyway.

Whenever anyone changes your favorite chip, there’s a predictable kerfuffle on the forums. An Atmel representative said they can get you chips with the full-swing driver with a special order code. We’re thinking that they’re not going to let us special order ten chips, though, so we’re going to have to learn to live with the change.

The ATmega328 has already gotten a makeover, and the new version has improved peripheral devices which are certainly welcome. They don’t have the full-swing oscillator onboard, so you can pick some up now and verify if this change is going to be a problem for you or not. We don’t have any of the new chips to test out just yet.

Thanks to [Ido Gendel] for tipping us off to the change in our comment section! If you have any first-hand experience with the new chips, let us know in the comments and send in a tip anytime you trip over something awesome during your Internet travels.

Improving the RTL-SDR

The RTL-SDR dongle is a real workhorse for radio hacking. However, the 28.8 MHz oscillator onboard isn’t as stable as you might wish. It is fine for a lot of applications and, considering the price, you shouldn’t complain. However, there are some cases where you need a more stable reference frequency.

[Craig] wanted a stable solution and immediately thought of a TCXO (Temperature Compensated “Xtal” Oscillator). The problem is, finding these at 28.8 MHz is difficult and, if you can find them, they are relatively expensive. He decided to make an alternate oscillator using an easier-to-find 19.2 MHz crystal.

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Unlock the Phase Locked Loop

If you want a stable oscillator, you usually think of using a crystal. The piezoelectric qualities of quartz means that it can be cut in a particular way that it will oscillate at a very precise frequency. If you present a constant load and keep the temperature stable, a crystal oscillator will maintain its frequency better than most other options.

There are downsides to crystals, though. As you might expect, because crystals are so stable it’s hard to change the frequency much when you want a different one. You can use a trimming capacitor to pull the frequency a little, but to really change frequency, you have to change crystals.

There are other kinds of oscillators that are more frequency agile. However, they aren’t usually as stable. To combine flexibility with crystal-like stability, you can use a Phase Locked Loop (PLL). Many modern systems use direct digital synthesis, but the PLL is a venerable and time-tested technique.

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