So Long, and Thanks for all the Crystals

There was a time when anyone involved with radio transmitting — ham operators, CB’ers, scanner enthusiasts, or remote control model fans — had a collection of crystals. Before frequency synthesis, became popular, this was the best way to set an accurate frequency. At one time, these were commonly available, and there were many places to order custom cut crystals.

One of the best-known US manufacturers of quartz crystals still around is International Crystal Manufacturing (ICM). Well, that is, until now. ICM recently announced they were ceasing operations after 66 years. They expect to completely shut down by May.

In a letter on their website, Royden Freeland Jr. (the founder’s son), committed to fulfilling existing orders and possibly taking some new orders, raw materials permitting. The company started making products out of Freeland’s father’s garage in 1950.

Another big name that might still be around is Jan Crystals. We say might, because although their website is live, there’s not much there and the phone number is not quite disconnected but it is “parked.” There are also some posts on the Internet (where everything is true) indicating they are out of business.

Even if you didn’t do radio work, crystals are a staple in digital systems where an accurate clock is necessary and some types of filters, too. Of course, you can still get them, you just may not be able to get them made in the United States soon.

If you want to know more about the technology behind crystals [Jenny] has you covered. Crystals are one of those things that have not changed much in a long time, so you might enjoy the very 1960’s vintage U. S. Air Force training film below.

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Ham Goes Nuts for Tiny Transmitter

What’s the minimal BOM for a working amateur radio transmitter? Looks like you can get away with seven parts, or eight if you include the walnut. You’ve got to have a walnut.

Some hams really love the challenge of QRP, or the deliberate use of low-power transmitters to provide a challenge to making long-distance contacts. We’ve covered the world of QRP before and noted that while QRP rigs don’t throw a lot of power, it doesn’t mean that they need to be simple. Some get quite complex and support many different modulation schemes, even digital modes. With only a single 2N3904 transistor,  [Jarno (PA3DMI)]’s tiny transmitter won’t do much more than send Morse using CW modulation, but given that it’s doing so from inside a walnut shell, we have no complaints. The two halves of the shell are hinged together and hold a scrap of perfboard for the simple quartz crystal oscillator. The prototype was tuned outside the shell,  and the 9-volt battery is obviously external, but aside from that it’s nothing but nuts.

We’d love to see [Jarno] add a spring to the hinge and contacts on the shell halves so no keyer is required. Who knows? Castanet-style keying might be all the rage with hams after that.

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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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Measure as Little as You Want with openQCM

The clever folks over at [Novaetech SRL] have unveiled openQCM, their open-source quartz crystal microbalance. A QCM measures very minute amounts of mass or mass variation using the piezoelectric properties of quartz crystal. When an object is placed on the surface of this sensor, the changes in the crystal’s resonant frequency can be detected and used to determine its mass in a variety of experimental conditions (air, vacuum, liquid). However, most QCM technology is proprietary and pricey – at least US$3000 for the microbalance itself. Any consumables, such as additional crystals, cost several hundred dollars more.

The openQCM has a sensitivity of 700 picograms. At its core is an Arduino Micro with a custom PCB. The board contains a 10K thermistor for temperature offset readings and the driver for a Pierce oscillator circuit. The quartz crystal frequency is determined by hacking the timer interrupts of the Arduino’s ATmega32u4. An external library called FreqCount uses the clock to count the number of pulses of the TTL signal in a 1 second time frame. This yields quartz crystal frequency resolution of 1Hz. The user interface is built in Java so that data can be read, plotted, and stored on your computer. The entire casing is 3D-printed, and it appears that the sensors are standard oscillator crystals without their cases.

Simplistic design makes assembly and maintenance a breeze. It only weighs 55 grams. Replacing the quartz crystal requires no special tools due to the clip system. The openQCM can be used as a single unit, or in multiples to form a network for all of your precise measurement needs. While they have kits available that will set you back US$500, all of the files and schematics for 3D-printing, assembly, and the PCB are available on the openQCM site for free.

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Retrotechtacular: Crystals Go to War

More than one of our readers suggested we highlight this beautifully-shot process documentary about the laborious and precise manufacturing of piezoelectric quartz crystals in the early 1940s. Just a few years later, Bell Labs would perfect a method of growing synthetic crystals, sending droves of brave men and daintily-handed women from the Reeves Sound Laboratories to the unemployment line.

Early radio equipment relied upon tuned or L-C circuits for clocking. These were prone to drift by a few kHz, which prompted the use of crystal oscillators for stable frequencies in the 1920s. The lives of our armed forces and those of our WWII allies depended on reliable communication equipment, so the crystal oscillators they used were top shelf, produced by hand from Brazilian crust.

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