Classifying Crystals With An SDR Dongle

When it comes to radio frequency oscillators, crystal controlled is the way to go when you want frequency precision. But not every slab of quartz in a tiny silver case is created equal, so crystals need to be characterized before using them. That’s generally a job for an oscilloscope, but if you’re clever, an SDR dongle can make a dandy crystal checker too.

The back story on [OM0ET]’s little hack is interesting, and one we hope to follow up on. The Slovakian ham is building what looks to be a pretty sophisticated homebrew single-sideband transceiver for the HF bands. Needed for such a rig are good intermediate frequency (IF) filters, which require matched sets of crystals. He wanted a quick and easy way to go through his collection of crystals and get a precise reading of the resonant frequency, so he turned to his cheap little RTL-SDR dongle. Plugged into a PC with SDRSharp running, the dongle’s antenna input is connected to the output of a simple one-transistor crystal oscillator. No schematics are given, but a look at the layout in the video below suggests it’s just a Colpitts oscillator. With the crystal under test plugged in, the oscillator produces a huge spike on the SDRSharp spectrum analyzer display, and [OM0ET] can quickly determine the center frequency. We’d suggest an attenuator to change the clipped plateau into a sharper peak, but other than that it worked like a charm, and he even found a few dud crystals with it.

Fascinated by the electromechanics of quartz crystals? We are too, which is why [Jenny]’s crystal oscillator primer is a good first stop for the curious.

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Drifting Instrument Presents Opportunity to Learn about Crystal Oscillators

Sure, we all love fixing stuff, but there’s often a fine line between something that’s worth repairing and something that’s cheaper in the long run to just replace. That line gets blurred, though, when there’s something to be learned from a repair.

This wonky temperature-compensated crystal oscillator is a good example of leaning toward repair just for the opportunity to peek inside. [Kerry Wong] identified it as the problem behind a programmable frequency counter reading significantly low. A TCXO is supposed to output a fixed frequency signal that stays stable over a range of temperatures by using a temperature sensor to adjust a voltage-controlled oscillator that corrects for the crystal’s natural tendency to vary its frequency as it gets hotter or colder. But this TCXO was pretty old, and even the trimmer capacitor provided was no longer enough to nudge it back in range. [Kerry] did some Dremel surgery on the case and came to the conclusion that adding another trim cap between one of the crystal’s leads and ground would help. This gave him a much wider adjustment range and let him zero in on the correct 10-MHz setting. [Mr. Murphy] still runs the show, though – after he got the TCXO buttoned up with the new trimmer inaccessible, he found that the frequency was not quite right. But going from 2 kHz off to only 2 Hz is still pretty good.

Whether it’s the weird world of microwave electronics or building a whole-house battery bank, it’s always fun to watch [Kerry]’s videos, and we usually end up learning a thing or two.

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Fail Of The Week: Never Assume All Crystals Are Born Equal

You should be used to our posting the hacks that didn’t quite go according to plan under our Fail Of The Week heading, things that should have worked, but due to unexpected factors, didn’t. They are the fault, if that’s not too strong a term, of the person making whatever the project is, and we feature them not in a spirit of mockery but one of commiseration and enlightenment.

This FOTW is a little different, because it reveals itself to have nothing to do with its originator. [Grogster] was using the widely-available HC-12 serial wireless modules, or clones or even possibly fakes thereof, and found that the modules would not talk to each other. Closer inspection found that the modules with the lack of intercommunication came from different batches, and possibly different manufacturers. Their circuits and components appeared identical, so what could possibly be up?

The problem was traced to the two batches of modules having different frequencies, one being 37 kHz ahead of the other. This was in turn traced to the crystal on board the off-frequency module, the 30 MHz component providing the frequency reference for the Si4463 radio chip was significantly out of spec. The manufacturer had used a cheap source of the component, resulting in modules which would talk to each other but not to the rest of the world’s HC-12s.

If there is a lesson to be extracted from this, it is to be reminded that even when cheap components or modules look as they should, and indeed even when they appear to work as they should, there can still be unexpected ways in which they can let you down. It has given us an interesting opportunity to learn about the HC-12, with its onboard STM8 CPU and one of the always-fascinating Silicon Labs radio chips. If you want to know more about the HC-12 module, we linked to a more in-depth look at it a couple of years ago.

Thanks [Manuka] for the tip.

Confessions Of A Reformed Frequency Standard Nut

Do you remember your first instrument, the first device you used to measure something? Perhaps it was a ruler at primary school, and you were taught to see distance in terms of centimetres or inches. Before too long you learned that these units are only useful for the roughest of jobs, and graduated to millimetres, or sixteenths of an inch. Eventually as you grew older you would have been introduced to the Vernier caliper and the micrometer screw gauge, and suddenly fractions of a millimetre, or thousandths of an inch became your currency.  There is a seduction to measurement, something that draws you in until it becomes an obsession.

Every field has its obsessives, and maybe there are bakers seeking the perfect cup of flour somewhere out there, but those in our community will probably focus on quantities like time and frequency. You will know them by their benches surrounded by frequency standards and atomic clocks, and their constant talk of parts per billion, and of calibration. I can speak with authority on this matter, for I used to be one of them in a small way; I am a reformed frequency standard nut. Continue reading “Confessions Of A Reformed Frequency Standard Nut”

A Gas Model Made of Magnets

Magnets are great stuff and everyone loves them, there are so many things you can do with them, including creating a model of the crystalline structure of solids, just as [Cody´s Lab] did using a bunch of magnets inside a pair of plexiglass sheets.

Crystal structure of ice. Image from Wikemedia Commons.

Many materials have their atoms arranged in a highly ordered microscopic structure — a crystal — including most metals, rocks, ceramics and ice, among others. The structure emerges when the material solidifies looking for the minimum energy configuration. Every atom interacts with its neighbors via microscopic forces forming several patterns depending on the specific material and conditions.

In his macroscopic world, [Cody´s Lab] used the magnets as his “atoms” and the magnetic repulsion between them represent the microscopic forces. Confining the magnets inside two transparent walls, one can see the formation of the crystal structure as magnets are added one by one.

This is an excellent teaching resource and also a fun way to play with magnets if you want to give it a try. Or if you want another magnet hack, we have tons of them, including implanting them in your body, or making your own with 3D printing.

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So Long, and Thanks for all the Crystals

There was a time when anyone involved with radio transmitting — ham operators, CB’ers, scanner enthusiasts, or remote control model fans — had a collection of crystals. Before frequency synthesis, became popular, this was the best way to set an accurate frequency. At one time, these were commonly available, and there were many places to order custom cut crystals.

One of the best-known US manufacturers of quartz crystals still around is International Crystal Manufacturing (ICM). Well, that is, until now. ICM recently announced they were ceasing operations after 66 years. They expect to completely shut down by May.

In a letter on their website, Royden Freeland Jr. (the founder’s son), committed to fulfilling existing orders and possibly taking some new orders, raw materials permitting. The company started making products out of Freeland’s father’s garage in 1950.

Another big name that might still be around is Jan Crystals. We say might, because although their website is live, there’s not much there and the phone number is not quite disconnected but it is “parked.” There are also some posts on the Internet (where everything is true) indicating they are out of business.

Even if you didn’t do radio work, crystals are a staple in digital systems where an accurate clock is necessary and some types of filters, too. Of course, you can still get them, you just may not be able to get them made in the United States soon.

If you want to know more about the technology behind crystals [Jenny] has you covered. Crystals are one of those things that have not changed much in a long time, so you might enjoy the very 1960’s vintage U. S. Air Force training film below.

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Understanding The Quartz Crystal Resonator

Accurate timing is one of the most basic requirements for so much of the technology we take for granted, yet how many of us pause to consider the component that enables us to have it? The quartz crystal is our go-to standard when we need an affordable, known, and stable clock frequency for our microprocessors and other digital circuits. Perhaps it’s time we took a closer look at it.

The first electronic oscillators at radio frequencies relied on the electrical properties of tuned circuits featuring inductors and capacitors to keep them on-frequency. Tuned circuits are cheap and easy to produce, however their frequency stability is extremely affected by external factors such as temperature and vibration. Thus an RF oscillator using a tuned circuit can drift by many kHz over the period of its operation, and its timing can not be relied upon. Long before accurate timing was needed for computers, the radio transmitters of the 1920s and 1930s needed to stay on frequency, and considerable effort had to be maintained to keep a tuned-circuit transmitter on-target. The quartz crystal was waiting to swoop in and save us this effort.

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