[Cameron Meredith] starts the Hackaday.io page for one of his projects by quoting a Hackaday write-up: “A timepiece is rather a rite of passage in the world of hardware hacking“. We stand by that assertion, but we’d say most of the clocks we feature aren’t as capable as his project. He’s made a real-time-clock module controlled by a rubidium frequency standard, and since it also includes a GPS clock he can track local time dilation effects by comparing the two.
Surplus rubidium standards are readily available, but each description of one seems to feature a lot of old-fashioned hardware hacking simply to get it working. This one is no exception, an unusual connector had to be replaced and an extra power supply module attached. Once those modifications had been made and a suitable heatsink had been attached, he was able to bring the rubidium standard, an RTC module, and GPS module together with an ATMega32U4 miniature Arduino-compatible board and an LCD display. The firmware is functional, but he admits it is not finished.
All the project’s files can be found on the Hackaday.io page linked above. Future plans include also monitoring the NIST WWVB radio time signal from Fort Collins, Colorado, for an extra time dilation comparison.
We’ve featured innumerable clocks over the years here at Hackaday, but among them have been a few based upon atomic standards. More than one has been used as a lab reference standard, but most similar to this build is [Max Carters] experiments to check the accuracy of an atomic standard, also using the WWVB transmissions.
A rubidium standard, or rubidium atomic clock, is a high accuracy frequency and time standard, usually accurate to within a few parts in 1011. This is still several orders of magnitude less than some of the more accurate standards – for example the NIST-F1 has an uncertainty of 5×10-16 (It is expected to neither gain nor lose a second in nearly 100 million years) and the more recent NIST-F2 has an uncertainty of 1×10-16 (It is expected to neither gain nor lose a second in nearly 300 million years). But the Rb standard is comparatively inexpensive, compact, and widely used in TV stations, Mobile phone base stations and GPS systems and is considered as a secondary standard.
The obvious way of checking would be to use another source with a higher accuracy, such as a caesium clock and do a phase comparison. Since that was not possible, he decided to use NIST’s time/frequency service, broadcasting on 60 kHz – WWVB. He did this because almost 30 years ago, he had built a receiver for WWVB which had since been running continuously in a corner of his shop, with only a minor adjustment since it was built.
His idea was to count and accumulate the phase ‘slips’ generated by comparing the output of the WWVB receiver with the output of the Rb standard using a digital phase comparator. The accuracy of the standard would be calculated as the derivative of N (number of slips) over time. The circuit is a quadrature mixer: it subtracts the frequency of one input from the other and outputs the difference frequency. The phase information is conveyed in the duty cycle of the pulses coming from the two phase comparators. The pulses are integrated and converted to digital logic level by low-pass filter/Schmitt trigger circuits. The quadrature-phased outputs are connected to the stepper motor driver which converts logic level inputs to bi-directional currents in the motor windings. The logic circuit is bread-boarded and along with the motor driver, housed in a computer hard drive enclosure which already had the power supply available.
If you have an old “Racal-Dana 199x” frequency counter or similar 10 MHz internally referenced gear with a poor tolerance “standard quartz crystal oscillator” or bit better “temperature compensated crystal oscillator” (TCXO) you could upgrade to a high stability timebase “oven controlled crystal oscillator” (OCXO) for under $25. [Gerry Sweeney] shares his design and fabrication instructions for a DIY OCXO circuit he made for his Racal-Dana frequency counter. We have seen [Gerry] perform a similar upgrade to his HP 53151A, however, this circuit is more generic and can be lashed up on a small section of solderable perf board.
Oven controlled oscillators keep the crystal at a stable temperature which in turn improves frequency stability. Depending on where you’re starting, adding an OCXO could improve your frequency tolerance by 1 to 3 orders of magnitude. Sure, this isn’t as good as a rubidium frequency standard build like we have seen in the past, but as [Gerry] states it is nice to have a transportable standalone frequency counter that doesn’t have to be plugged into his rubidium frequency standard.
[Gerry’s] instructions, schematics and datasheets can be used to upgrade any lab gear which depends on a simple 10 MHz reference (crystal or TXCO). He purchased the OCXO off eBay for about $20 — it might be very old, yet we are assured they get more stable with age. Many OCXO’s require 5 V, 12 V or 24 V so your gear needs to accommodate the correct voltage and current load. To calibrate the OCXO you need a temperature stable variable voltage reference that can be adjusted from 1 to 4 volts. The MAX6198A he had on hand fit the bill at 5 ppm/°C temperature coefficient. Also of importance was to keep the voltage reference and trim pot just above the oven for added temperature stability as well as removing any heat transfer through the mounting screw.
You can watch the video and get more details after the break.
You can find rubidium frequency standards all over eBay and various surplus dealers. They’re actually quite interesting devices, able to generate a 10 MHz sine wave with enough precision to be a serviceable atomic clock. While these standards can find themselves very useful in a lab, they’re only a component, and not a working-out-of-the-box device. [Gerry] decided he would fix that, turning his rubidium standard into a proper piece of bench equipment, all in a single afternoon.
[Gerry]’s first step was finding a proper enclosure for his new piece of equipment. Most of the time, choosing an enclosure is practice in the art of compromise. This time, though, [Gerry] found the perfect enclosure: an old piece of video distribution equipment. On the back of this box, there are a ton of BNC plugs, perfect for attaching to random lab equipment and feeding them a signal from the rubidium standard.
After going through the video circuit and changing the 75 Ohm outputs to 50 Ohms, [Gerry] wired up an eBay power supply, fan, and a small circuit with an 8-pin PIC to complete his new tool. The rubidium standard does get freakishly hot, but hopefully mounting it to a large aluminum box with a bit of cooling will keep all the added electronics in working order.
[Gerry] did all this in just under 5 hours. An impressive feat, given that he probably spent that much time editing the video, available below.
So you see an image like this and the description “Aircraft stable oscillator” on an eBay listing for twenty pounds (about thirty bucks), what do you do? If you’re [Alecjw] you buy the thing and crack it open to find an atomic clock source inside. But he really went the distance with this one and figured out how to reconfigure the source from the way it was set up in the factory.
First off, the fact that it’s made for the aerospace industry means that the craftsmanship on it is simply fantastic. The enclosure is machined aluminum and all of the components are glued or otherwise attached to the boards to help them stand up to the high-vibrations often experienced on a plane. After quite a bit of disassembly [Alec] gets down to a black box which is labeled “Rubidium Frequency Standard”… jackpot! He had been hoping for a 10 MHz signal to use with his test equipment but when he hooked it up the source was putting out 800 kHz. With a bit more investigation he figured out how to reconfigure the support electronics to get that 10 Mhz source. We think you’re going to love reading about how he used a test crystal during the reconfiguration step.
Once he knew what he had he returned to the eBay seller and cleared out the rest of his stock.