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Retrotechtacular: The Genesis of the Transistor

Few births are easy. Even fewer result in a Nobel Prize, and hardly any at all are the work of three men. This 1965 film from the AT&T archives is a retrospection on the birth of the transistor nine years after its creators, [Walter Brattain], [John Bardeen], and [William Shockley] received a Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery and implementation of the transistor effect.

The transistor is the result of the study of semiconductors such as germanium. Prior to the research that led directly to the transistor, it was known that the conductivity of semiconductors increases when their temperature is raised. The converse is true for metals such as tungsten. Semiconductor conductivity also increases when they are exposed to light. Another key to their discovery is that when a metal such as copper is in contact with a semiconductor, conductivity is less in one direction than the other. This particular property was exploited in early radio technology as seen in crystal radios, for copper oxide rectifiers used in telephony, and for microwave radar in WWII.

After WWII, AT&T’s Bell Labs put a lot of time and research into the study of semiconductors, as their properties weren’t fully understood. Researchers focused on the simplest semiconductors, silicon and germanium, and did so in two areas: bulk properties and surface properties. During this time, [Shockley] proposed the field effect, supposing that the electrons near the surface of a semiconductor could be controlled under the influence of an external electric field.

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Reverse engineering the die of a ULN2003 transistor array

uln2003-die-reverse-engineering

We’re no strangers to looking at uncapped silicon. This time around it’s not just a show and tell, as one transistor form a ULN2003 chip is reverse engineered.

The photo above is just one slice from a picture of the chip after having its plastic housing remove (decapped). It might be a stretch to call this reverse engineering. It’s more of a tutorial on how to take a functional schematic and figure out how each component is placed on a photograph of a chip die. Datasheets usually include these schematics so that engineers know what to expect from the hardware. But knowing what a resistor or transistor looks like on the die is another story altogether.

The problem is that you can’t just look at a two dimensional image like the one above. These semiconducting elements are manufactured in three dimensions. The article illustrates where the N and P type materials are located on the transistor using a high-res photo and a reference diagram.

If you want to photograph your own chip dies there are a few ways to decap them at home.

How 6502 Overflow Works

6502 Overflow Circuit

The 6502 was a ubiquitous microprocessor back in the 80s, powering devices such as the Apple II and the Nintendo Entertainment System. [Ken] took an in depth look at a small part of the processor: the overflow circuit.

In order to do signed calculations, a microprocessor’s arithmetic logic unit (ALU) needs to be able to calculate when an overflow occurs. This happens when two numbers are added that cannot fit in a single byte. The result of a calculation will be incorrect, so the processor must inform the program that an overflow has occurred. This is done by setting an overflow flag.

[Ken] uses this example to first explain how the overflow circuit works in logic. He then looks at the gates and a transistor implementation of the logic. Finally, he walks us through the circuit on the actual 6502 die, showing how the circuit is constructed in silicon.

This is a great example to learn a bit more about how ALUs work and how integrated circuits get built.

Reverse engineering silicon

[John McMaster] is doing some pretty amazing work with figuring out how the circuitry in an integrated circuit works. Right now he’s reverse engineering a serial EEPROM chip one section at a time. This is a 24c02 made by ST, and  he chose this particular portion of the die to examine because it looked like there were some analog components involved.

He removed the top metal using hydrofluoric acid in order to take this image. By continually removing layers this way he manages to work out the traces and even the components themselves. To help clarify the parts he uses the set of snapshots to generate a colored map using Inkscape. From there he begins labeling what he thinks the components might be, and like a puzzle the pieces start falling into place one by one. From the Inkscape drawing he lays out a schematic, then rearranges the components to make the design easier to understand. Apparently this is a Schmidt trigger.

[Thanks George]

The Engineer Guy explains how MEMS accelerometer chips work

There’s a good chance that you use a MEMS accelerometer every single day. It’s the small chip that let your smart phone automatically adjust its screen orientation. They’re great chips, and since they’re mass-produced you can add them to your projects for a song (if you can abide the tiny packaging). But we have no idea of how they are made and only a inkling of how they work. [Bill Hammack] has filled that knowledge gap with this explanation of how MEMS accelerometers are made and how they function.

Our base knowledge comes from the acronym: Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems. There’s something in the chip that moves (so much for solid state electronics; and it makes us wonder if these wear out). [Bill] includes a diagram in his video after the break which shows the silicon-based system that moves as it is affected by gravity. This changes the capacitive properties of the structure, which can be measured and reported to a microcontroller for further use. The structure is built using an intricate etching process which we never want to try out at home.

Looking for a project in which to use one of these devices? We’ve always been fond of this POV device.

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Exploding an AVR

Unfortunately [manekinen] wrecked a couple of AVRs during his tinkering. Not letting this get him down he decided to blow them up to see what would happen. In exchange for their precious magic smoke the AVRs revealed a good portion of their silicon die.

While the details are a little sparse it seems like he hooked them up to a high (and possibly reverse) source to blow open the chips casing. From the pictures it looks like he was able to reveal some of the flash or SRAM (the big multi colored rectangles) and what could possibly be the power supply. Be sure to checkout the videos after the break for some silicon carnage.

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Jeri makes integrated circuits

[Jeri Ellsworth] made this silicon inverter at home, by hand. It took her two years to get the process figured out and achieve something we didn’t think was possible. The complexity of manufacture, and the wide range of tools and materials needed seem insurmountable but she did it anyway. Her home chip fab Flickr set is well commented and details her work area and part of the processing. If you’re hurting for more check out her 40 minute Metalab talk which we’ve embedded after the break.

If her name sounds familiar but you just can’t place it you may know her from The Fatman and Circuit Girl. We’ve also featured some of her hacks, such as her Pinball challenge against [Ben Heckendorn], and her giant Etch-a-Sketch.

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