Yes, You Can Reverse Engineer this 74181

[Ken Shirriff] is the gift that keeps on giving this new year. His latest is a reverse engineering of the 74181 Arithmetic Logic Unit (ALU). The great news is that the die image and complexity are both optimized for you to succeed at doing your own reverse engineering.

74181-openedWe have most recently seen [Ken] at work explaining his decapping and reverse engineering process at the Hackaday SuperCon followed soon after by his work on the 8008. That chip is crazy with complexity and a die-ogling noob (like several of us on the Hackaday crew) stands no chance of doing more than simply following along with what he explains. This time around, the 74181 is just right for the curious but not obsessed. Don’t believe me? The 8008 had around 3,500 transistors while the friendly 74181 hosts just 170. We like those odds!

A quick crash course in visually recognizing transistors will have you off to the races. [Ken] also provides reference for more complex devices. But where he really saves the day is in his schematic analysis. See, the traditional ‘textbook’ logic designs have been made faster in this chip and going through his explanation will get you back on track to follow the method behind the die’s madness.

[Ken] took his own photograph of the die. You can see the donor chip above which had its ceramic enclosure shattered with a brisk tap from a sharp chisel.

Silicon Wafer Transfer Machine Is Beautifully Expensive

There’s nothing more freeing than to be an engineer with no perceptible budget in sight. [BrendaEM] walks us through a teardown of a machine that was designed under just such a lack of constraint. It sat inside of a big box whose job was to take silicon wafers in on one side and spit out integrated circuits on the other.

[BrendaEM] never really divulges how she got her hands on something so expensive that the engineer could specify “tiny optical fiber prisms on the end of a precision sintered metal post” as an interrupt solution for the wafer.  However, we’re glad she did.

The machine features lots of things you would expect; pricey ultra precise motors, silky smooth linear motion systems, etcetera. At one point she turns on a gripper movement, the sound of it moving can be adequately described as poetic.

It also gives an unexpected view into how challenging it is to produce the silicon we rely on daily at the ridiculously affordable price we’ve come to expect. Everything from the ceramic plates and jaws that can handle the heat of the silicon right out of the oven to the obvious cleanliness of even this heavily used unit.

It’s a rare look into an expensive world most of us peasants aren’t invited to. Video after the break.

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Hackaday Links: Summer, 2015

[Elia] was experimenting with LNAs and RTL-SDR dongles. If you’re receiving very weak signals with one of these software defined radio dongles, you generally need an LNA to boost the signal. You can power an LNA though one of these dongles. You’ll need to remove a few diodes, and that means no ESD protection, and you might push the current consumption above the 500mA a USB port provides. It does, however, work.

We’ve seen people open up ICs with nitric acid, and look inside them with x-rays. How about a simpler approach? [steelcityelectronics] opened up a big power transistor with nothing but a file. The die is actually very small – just 1.8×1.8mm, and the emitter bond wire doesn’t even look like it’ll handle 10A.

Gigantic Connect Four. That’s what the Lansing Makers Network built for a Ann Arbor Maker Faire this year. It’s your standard Connect Four game, scaled up to eight feet tall and eight feet wide. The disks are foam insulation with magnets; an extension rod (with a magnet at the end) allows anyone to push the disks down the slots.

[Richard Sloan] of fame has a buddy running a Kickstarter right now. It’s a lanyard with a phone charger cable inside.

Facebook is well-known for the scientific literacy of its members. Here’s a perpetual motion machine. Comment gold here, people.

Here’s some Hackaday Prize business: We’re giving away stuff to people who use Atmel, Freescale, Microchip, and TI parts in their projects. This means we need to know you’re using these parts in your projects. Here’s how you let us know. Also, participate in the community voting rounds. Here are the video instructions on how to do that.

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.

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


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.