If you have ever entertained yourself by reading comprehensive electronic-theory textbooks you’ll have seen references to technologies that sound really interesting but which you will rarely hold in your hand. They may be dead-ends that have been superseded by more recent innovations, or they may be technologies that have found uses but in other fields from those in which they originally showed promise. What if you could take these crazy parts and actually build something?
[Fedetft] has an interesting project that combines two of those intriguing textbook references, he’s created a thermopile that lights an LED through an inverter whose oscillator is a tunnel diode. Dig out the textbook.
If you’ve used a thermocouple thermometer or a semiconductor thermoelectric generator then you’ll have encountered the thermoelectric effect. Perhaps you’ve even operated a Peltier cooling element in this mode. When a circuit is made with two junctions between different types of conductor with a temperature difference between the two junctions, a current will flow in the circuit which is dependent on both the scale of the temperature difference and the properties of the conductors.
A thermopile is a collection of these thermoelectric junction circuits between metal conductors, arranged in series to increase the voltage. [Fedetft]’s thermopile uses chromel and alumel wires taken from a K-type thermocouple. He’s made six sets of junctions, and supported them with small pieces of mica sheet. Using the heat from a candle he found he could generate about 200mV with it, at about 3.7mW.
Such a tiny source of electricity would be of little use to light an LED directly, so he needed to build an inverter. And that’s where the tunnel diode comes in. Tunnel diodes have a negative-resistance region that can be used to amplify and oscillate at extremely high frequencies in extremely simple circuits, yet they’re not exactly a device you’d encounter very often in 2016. [Fedetft] has a Russian tunnel diode, and he’s used it with a toroidal transformer in an inverter circuit he found in an RCA tunnel diode manual from 1963. It’s a two-component Joule Thief. The RCA manual is a good read in itself for those curious about tunnel diodes.
The resulting circuit produces a 15kHz oscillation with 4.5v peaks, and has just enough power to light an LED.
While it might seem pointless to barely light an LED from a brightly lit candle, the important part of [Fedetft]’s project is to gain some understanding of two of those technological backwaters from the textbooks. And we applaud that.
It’s the mark of a truly esoteric technology that it features rarely on Hackaday, and neither of these two disappoint. We’ve only mentioned tunnel diode in passing when looking at diodes in general, and we’ve tended to use “thermopile” in another sense to refer to thermal imaging cameras.