Flashing An LED The Widlar Way

Regular Hackaday readers will be familiar with the work of Boldport’s [Saar Drimer] in creating beauty in printed circuit board design. A recent work of his is the Widlar, a tribute to the legendary integrated circuit designer [Bob Widlar] in the form of a development board for his μA723 voltage regulator chip.

The μA723 is a kit of parts from which almost any regulator configuration can be made, but for [tardate]  it represented a challenge. The μA723 is so versatile that what you can create is only limited by the imagination of the builder. Having done the ordinary before, [tardate] looked toward something unconventional.

The result is modest, a simple LED flasher using the error amplifier as a not-very-good op-amp, building an oscillator at a frequency of about 2 Hz. This is pretty neat and if you are used to the NE555 as the universal integrated circuit, perhaps it’s time to set it aside for the obviously far-more-useful μA723.

Here at Hackaday we harbour at least one fan of the μA723, not to mention also of artful PCBs. If the Widlar looks familiar, we featured the switch mode regulator from the μA723 data sheet on it a few months ago.

Disclosure: [Jenny List] wrote the documentation for Boldport’s Widlar kit.

The UA723 As A Switch Mode Regulator

If you are an electronic engineer or received an education in electronics that went beyond the very basics, there is a good chance that you will be familiar with the Fairchild μA723. This chip designed by the legendary Bob Widlar and released in 1967 is a kit-of-parts for building all sorts of voltage regulators. Aside from being a very useful device, it may owe some of its long life to appearing as a teaching example in Paul Horowitz and Winfield Hill’s seminal text, The Art Of Electronics. It’s a favourite chip of mine, and I have written about it extensively both on these pages and elsewhere.

The Fairchild switching regulator circuit. From the μA723 data sheet in their 1973 linear IC databook, page 194 onwards.
The Fairchild switching regulator circuit. From the μA723 data sheet in their 1973 linear IC databook, page 194 onwards.

For all my experimenting with a μA723 over the decades there is one intriguing circuit on its data sheet that I have never had the opportunity to build. Figure 9 on the original Fairchild data sheet is a switching regulator, a buck converter using a pair of PNP transistors along with the diode and inductor you would expect. Its performance will almost certainly be eclipsed by a multitude of more recent dedicated converter chips, but it remains the one μA723 circuit I have never built. Clearly something must be done to rectify this situation.

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Get To Know Voltage Regulators With A 723

“Chapter 5; Horowitz and Hill”. University students of all subjects will each have their standard texts of which everyone will own a copy. It will be so familiar to them as to be referred to by its author as a shorthand, and depending on the subject and the tome in question it will be either universally loathed or held onto and treasured as a lifetime work of reference.

For electronic engineers the work that most exemplifies this is [Paul Horowitz] and [Winfield Hill]’s The Art Of Electronics. It definitely falls into the latter category of course books, being both a mine of information and presented in an extremely accessible style. It’s now available in its third edition, but the copy in front of me is a first edition printed some time in the mid 1980s.

The Art of Electronics, on regulators.
The Art of Electronics, on regulators.

Chapter 5 probably made most of an impression on the late-teenage me, because it explains voltage regulation and power supplies both linear and switching. Though there is nothing spectacularly challenging about a power supply from the perspective of experience, having them explained as a nineteen-year-old by a book that made sense because it told you all the stuff you needed to know rather than just what a school exam syllabus demanded you should know was a revelation.

On the first page of my Art of Electronics chapter 5, they dive straight in to the μA723 linear voltage regulator. This is pretty old; a design from the legendary [Bob Widlar], master of analogue integrated circuits, which first made it to market in 1967. [Horowitz] and [Hill] say “Although you might not choose it for a new design nowadays, it is worth looking at in some detail, since more recent regulators work on the same principles“. It was 13 years old when they wrote that sentence and now it is nearly 50 years old, yet judging by the fact that Texas Instruments still lists it as an active product without any of those ominous warnings about end-of-life it seems plenty of designers have not heeded those words.

So why is a 50-year-old regulator chip still an active product? There is a huge range of better regulators, probably cheaper and more efficient regulators that make its 14-pin DIP seem very dated indeed. The answer is that it’s an incredibly useful part because it does not present you with a regulator as such, instead it’s a kit of all the parts required to make a regulator of almost any description. Thus it is both an astonishingly versatile device for a designer and the ideal platform for anyone wanting to learn about or experiment with a regulator.
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