Books You Should Read: Instruments Of Amplification

Psst… Wanna make a canning jar diode? A tennis ball triode? How about a semiconductor transistor? Or do you just enjoy sitting back and following along an interesting narrative of something being made, while picking up a wealth of background, tips and sparking all sorts of ideas? In my case I wanted to make a cuprous oxide semiconductor diode and that lead me to H.P. Friedrichs’ wonderful book Instruments of Amplification. It includes such a huge collection of amplifier knowledge and is a delight to read thanks to a narrative style and frequent hands-on experiments.

Friedrichs first authored another very popular book, The Voice of the Crystal, about making crystal radios, and wanted to write a second one. For those not familiar with crystal radios, they’re fun to make radios that are powered solely by the incoming radio waves; there are no batteries. But that also means the volume is low.

Readers of that book suggested a good follow-up would be one about amplifier circuits, to amplify the crystal radio’s volume. However, there were already an abundance of such books. Friedrichs realized the best follow-up would be one on how to make the amplifying components from scratch, the “instruments of amplification”.  It would be unique and in the made-from-scratch spirit of crystal radios. The book, Instruments of Amplification was born.

The Experiments

Microphonic relays
Microphonic relays, via H.P. Friedrichs Homepage

The book includes just the right amount of a history, giving background on what an amplifier is and how they first came in the electrical world. Telegraph operators wanted to send signals over greater and greater distances and the solution was to use the mix of electronics and mechanics found in the telegraph relay. This is the springboard for his first project and narrative: the microphonic relay.

The microphonic relay example shown on the right places a speaker facing a microphone; the speaker is the input with the microphone amplifying the output. He uses a carbon microphone salvaged from an old telephone headset, housing everything in an enclosure of copper pipe caps, steel bar stock, nuts and bolts mounted on an elegant looking wood base. All the projects are made with simple parts, with care, and they end up looking great.

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Infrared Detector Selects Over a Wide Range

You can classify infrared light into three broad ranges: short wave, medium wave, and long wave. Traditionally, sensors concentrate on one or two bands, and each band has its own purpose. Short wave IR, for example, produces images similar to visible light images. Long wave is good for thermal imaging.

Researchers have announced a new detector that, by adjusting a bias, can detect all three bands using a simple approach that stacks different absorption layers over a semiconductor substrate. The device only requires two terminals and is very efficient, although the efficiency varies based on the band.

We’ve covered infrared sensing before. We’ve even seen DSLRs hacked into IR sensors. This new research might be a bit much to duplicate in your garage. After all, it requires tellurium doped gallium antimonide substrates and sophisticated processing equipment. However, this research will probably lead to practical devices that will find their way into projects before too long.

Home Made Diodes From Copper Oxide

We’re all familiar with semiconductor devices, and we should remember the explanation from high-school physics classes that they contain junctions between two types of semiconductor material. “N” type which in the for-schoolchildren explanation has a surplus of electrons, and “P” type which has “Holes”, or a deficit of electrons.

Unless our careers have taken us deep into the science of the semiconductor industry though that’s probably as close as we’ve come to the semiconductors themselves. To us a diode or a transistor is a neatly packaged device with handy wires. We’ve never really seen what’s inside, let alone made any real semiconductor devices ourselves.

[Hales] though has other ideas. With the dream of creating a paintable semiconductor layer for ad-hoc creation of simple diodes, he’s been experimenting with oxidising copper to make a surface of cupric oxide onto which he can make a contact for a simple diode.

What makes his experiments particularly impressive though is not merely that he’s created a working diode, albeit one with a low reverse breakdown voltage. He’s done it not in a gleaming laboratory with a full stock of chemicals and equipment, but on his bench with a candle, and drops of water. He takes us through the whole process, with full details of his semiconductor manufacture as well as his diode test rig to trace the device’s I/V curve. Well worth a read, even if you never intend to make a diode yourself.

We’ve featured a cuprous oxide diode once before here at Hackaday, albeit a rather fancier device. If this article has piqued your interests about diodes, may we direct you to this informative video on the subject?

The diode looks black, leading me to believe it’s cupric oxide and not cuprous oxide. Feel free to argue that point in the comments anyway – Ed.

New Magnetic Semiconductor

When you think of South Dakota you generally think of Mount Rushmore and, maybe, nuclear missiles. However, [Simeon Gilbert] will make you think of semiconductors. [Simeon], a student at South Dakota State University, won first place at the annual Sigma Xi national conference because of his work on a novel magnetic semiconductor.

The material, developed in collaboration with researchers from the nano-magnetic group at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a mix of cobalt, iron, chromium, and aluminum. However, some of the aluminum is replaced with silicon. Before the replacement, the material maintained its magnetic properties at temperatures up to 450F. With the silicon standing in for some of the aluminum atoms, the working temperature is nearly 1,000F.

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Mergers and Acquisitions: TI Looks to Snatch Up Maxim

BloombergBusiness is reporting rumors that Texas Instruments is in talks to acquire Maxim Integrated. Both companies have declined to respond to this leaked information. Earlier this year there were rumors that the two companies had been in talks in 2014 that didn’t result with an agreement.

We find it interesting that the article mentions Maxim doesn’t need to scale — yet we often find Maxim parts in short supply. If TI were to acquire the company this could change for some Maxium parts. Still, this move looks a lot like TI trying to bolster its hold on the portions of the analog chip market which both companies currently occupy.

Already this year we’ve seen Dialog acquire Atmel, Avago acquire Broadcom, and the merger agreement between Freescale and NXP. We probably missed a few, and this has us wonder who is next. Let us know what you think in the comments below.

[Thanks Kumar]

Learning From Transparent Microchips

Microchips and integrated circuits are usually treated as black boxes; a signal goes in, and a signal goes out, and everything between those two events can be predicted and accurately modeled from a datasheet. Of course, the reality is much more complex, as any picture of a decapped IC will tell you.

[Jim Conner] got his hands on a set of four ‘teaching’ microchips made by Motorola in 1992 that elucidates the complexities of integrated circuitry perfectly: instead of being clad in opaque epoxy, these chips are encased in transparent plastic.

The four transparent chips are beautiful works of engineering art, with the chip carriers, the bond wires, and the tiny square of silicon all visible to the naked eye. The educational set covers everything from resistors, n-channel and p-channel MOSFETS, diodes, and a ring oscillator circuit.

[Jim] has the chips and the datasheets, but doesn’t have the teaching materials and lab books that also came as a kit. In lieu of proper pedagogical technique, [Jim] ended up doing what any of us would: looking at it with a microscope and poking it with a multimeter and oscilloscope.

While the video below only goes over the first chip packed full of resistors, there are some interesting tidbits. One of the last experiments for this chip includes a hall effect sensor, in this case just a large, square resistor with multiple contacts around the perimeter. When a magnetic field is applied, some of the electrons are deflected, and with a careful experimental setup this magnetic field can be detected on an oscilloscope.

[Jim]’s video is a wonderful introduction to the black box of integrated circuits, but the existence of clear ICs leaves us wondering why these aren’t being made now. It’s too much to ask for Motorola to do a new run of these extremely educational chips, but why these chips are relegated to a closet in an engineering lab or the rare eBay auction is anyone’s guess.

Looking inside the KR580VM80A Soviet i8080 clone

The folks at Zeptobars are on a roll, sometimes looking deep inside historic chips and at others exposing fake devices for our benefit. Behind all of those amazing die shots are hundreds of hours of hard work. [Mikhail] from Zeptobars recently tipped us off on the phenomenal work done by engineer [Vslav] who spent over 1000 hours reverse engineering the Soviet KR580VM80A – one of the most popular micro-controllers of the era and a direct clone of the i8080.

But before [Vslav] could get down to creating the schematic and Verilog model, the chip needed to be de-capped and etched. As they etched down, they created a series of high resolution images of the die. At the end of that process, they were able to determine that the chip had exactly 4758 transistors (contrary to rumors of 6000 or 4500). With the images done, they were able to annotate the various parts of the die, create a Verilog model and the schematic. A tough compatibility test confirmed the veracity of their Verilog model. All of the source data is available via a (CC-BY-3.0) license from their website. If this looks interesting, do check out some of their work that we have featured earlier like comparing real and fake Nordic dies and amazing descriptions of how they figure out the workings of these decapped chips. If this is too deep for you check out the slightly simpler but equally awesome process of delayering PCBs.