Circuit VR: Even More Op Amps

In the last Circuit VR we looked at some basic op amp circuits in a simulator, including the non-inverting amplifier. Sometimes you want an amplifier that inverts the signal. That is a 5V input results in a -5V output (or -10V if the amplifier has a gain of 2). This corresponds to a 180 degree phase shift which can be useful in amplifiers, filters, and other circuits. Let’s take a look at an example circuit simulated with falstad.

Remember the Rules

Last time I mentioned two made up rules that are good shortcuts for analyzing op amp circuits:

  1. The inputs of the op amp don’t connect to anything internally.
  2. The output mysteriously will do what it can to make the inputs equal, as far as it is physically possible.

As a corollary to the second rule, you can easily analyze the circuit shown here by thinking of the negative (inverting) terminal as a virtual ground. It isn’t connected to ground, yet in a properly configured op amp circuit it might as well be at ground potential. Why? Because the + terminal is grounded and rule #2 says the op amp will change conditions to make sure the two terminals are the same. Since it can’t influence the + terminal, it will drive the voltage through the resistor network to ensure the – terminal is at 0V.

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Plant Communication Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, January 13th at noon Pacific for the Plant Communication Hack Chat with Lex Kravitz!

As far as conversation goes, plants are usually a pretty poor choice of partners. Sure, we’ve all heard that talking to you houseplants is supposed to be good for them, but expecting them to talk back in any meaningful way is likely to end in disappointment.

Or is it? For as simple and inanimate as plants appear to be, they actually have a rich set of behaviors. Plants can react to stimuli, moving toward attractants like light and nutrients and away from repellents. Some trees can secrete substances to prevent competitors crowding around them, by preventing their seedlings from ever even taking root. And we’ve known for a long time that plants can communicate with each other, through chemical signaling.

Plants are clearly capable of much more than just sitting there, but is there more to the story? Neuroscientist Lex Kravitz thinks so, which is why he has been wiring up his houseplants to sensitive amplifiers and looking for electrical signals. While the bulk of what we know about plant communications is centered on the chemical signals they send, it could be that there’s an electrical component to their behaviors too. Join us as Lex stops by the Hack Chat to talk about his plant communication experiments, and to see if it may someday be possible to listen in on what your plants are saying about you.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, January 13 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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FM Radio From Scratch Using An Arduino

Building radio receivers from scratch is still a popular project since it can be done largely with off-the-shelf discrete components and a wire long enough for the bands that the radio will receive. That’s good enough for AM radio, anyway, but you’ll need to try this DIY FM receiver if you want to listen to something more culturally relevant.

Receiving frequency-modulated radio waves is typically more difficult than their amplitude-modulated cousins because the circuitry necessary to demodulate an FM signal needs a frequency-to-voltage conversion that isn’t necessary with AM. For this build, [hesam.moshiri] uses a TEA5767 FM chip because of its ability to communicate over I2C. He also integrated a 3W amplifier into this build, and everything is controlled by an Arduino including a small LCD screen which displays the current tuned frequency. With the addition of a small 5V power supply, it’s a tidy and compact build as well.

While the FM receiver in this project wasn’t built from scratch like some AM receivers we’ve seen, it’s still an interesting build because of the small size, I2C capability, and also because all of the circuit schematics are available for all of the components in the build. For those reasons, it could be a great gateway project into more complex FM builds.

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SDR Transmitting Gets The Power

Most hobby-grade software defined radio setups don’t transmit. Of the few that do, most of them put out anemic levels around one milliwatt or so. If you want to do something outside of the lab, you’ll need an amplifier and that’s what [Tech Minds] shows how to do in a recent video. (Embedded below.)

The video covers LimeSDR, HackRF, and the Pluto SDR, although the amplifiers should work with any transmitter. The SPF5189Z module is quite cheap and covers 50 MHz to 4 GHz, amplifying everything you throw at it. The downside is that it will amplify everything you throw at it, even parts of the signal you don’t want, such as spurs and harmonics.

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ESP32 Becomes Music Player In Under 40 Lines Of Code

The demo code for [XTronical]’s ESP32-based SD card music player is not even 40 lines long, though it will also require a few economical parts before it all works. Nevertheless, making a microcontroller play MP3s (and other formats) from an SD card is considerably simpler today than it was years ago.

Part of what makes this all work is I2S (Inter-IC Sound), a format for communicating PCM audio data between devices. Besides the ESP32, at the heart of it all is an SD card reader breakout board and the MAX98357A, which can be thought of as a combination I2S decoder and Class D amplifier. The ESP32 reads audio files from the SD card and uses an I2S audio library to send the I2S data stream to the MAX98357A (or two of them for stereo.) From there it is decoded automatically and audio gets pumped though attached speakers.

A few economical components, and only a handful of connections between them.

It’s amazing how much easier audio is to work with when one can take advantage of shuffling audio data around digitally, and the decoder handles multiple formats with an amplifier built in. You can see [XTronical]’s ESP32 player in action in the video embedded below.

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Whirling Shutters On This Field Mill Measure Electrostatic Charges At Distance

Hardly a person hasn’t experienced the sudden, sharp discharge of static electricity, especially on a crisp winter’s day. It usually requires a touch, though, the classic example being a spark from finger to doorknob after scuffing across the carpet. But how would one measure the electrostatic charge of an object without touching it? Something like this field mill, which is capable of measuring electrostatic charge over a range of several meters, will do the trick.

We confess to not having heard of field mills before, and found [Leo Fernekes]’ video documenting his build to be very instructive. Field mills have applications in meteorology, being used to measure the electrostatic state of the atmosphere from the ground. They’ve also played a role in many a scrubbing of rocket launches, to prevent the missile from getting zapped during launch.

[Leo]’s mill works much like the commercial units: a grounded shutter rotates in front of two disc-shaped electrodes, modulating the capacitance of the system relative to the outside world. The two electrodes are fed into a series of transimpedance amplifiers, which boost the AC signal coming from them. A Hall sensor on the shutter allows sampling of the signal to be synchronized to the rotation of the shutter; this not only generates the interrupts needed to sample the sine wave output of the amplifier at its peaks and troughs, but it also measures whether the electrostatic field is positive or negative. Check out the video below for a great explanation and a good looking build with a junk-bin vibe to it.

Meteorological uses aside, we’d love to see this turned toward any of the dozens of Tesla coil builds we’ve seen. From the tiny to the absurd, this field mill should be able to easily measure any Tesla coil’s output with ease.

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Guitar Effect Built From An Old Record Player

With little more than a gutted record player, a light bulb, and the legendary 555 timer IC, [Jacob Ellzey] has constructed this very slick optical tremolo effect for his guitar. By modulating the volume of the input signal, the device creates the wavering effect demonstrated in the video after the break.

The key is a vinyl record with large tabs cut out of it. As the record spins, these voids alternately block and unblock a small incandescent bulb. A common GL5537 photoresistor, mounted on the arm that originally held the player’s needle, picks up the varying light levels and passes that on to the electronics underneath the deck. An important note here is that different spacing and sizing of the cutouts will change the sound produced by the effect. [Jacob] has already produced a few different designs and plans on experimenting with more now that the electronics are completed.

Under the hood there’s a voltage divider and low gain amplifier connected to the photoresistor, and also a 555 timer circuit that’s driving the incandescent bulb. Once he was done fiddling with them, the circuit was moved to a neat little protoboard. A pair of potentiometers mounted through the side of the record player allow for adjusting the depth of the effect itself, as well as the output volume. Naturally, there’s also an external foot pedal that allows keying the effect on and off without taking your hands from the guitar.

As is usually the case, everything was going well on this project until the final moments, when [Jacob] found that the circuit and bulb were both browning out when powered from the same transformer. As a quick fix, he gutted a Keurig and used its transformer to drive the light bulb by itself. With independent power supplies, he was ready to rock.

Of course this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a piece of consumer electronics modified into a guitar effect, but if you’re looking for something a bit more built for purpose, there’s plenty of high-tech options to keep you busy.

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