Fun With Negative Resistance II: Unobtanium Russian Tunnel Diodes

In the first part of this series, we took a look at a “toy” negative-differential-resistance circuit made from two ordinary transistors. Although this circuit allows experimentation with negative-resistance devices without the need to source rare parts, its performance is severely limited. This is not the case for actual tunnel diodes, which exploit quantum tunneling effects to create a negative differential resistance characteristic. While these two-terminal devices once ruled the fastest electronic designs, their use has fallen off dramatically with the rise of other technologies. As a result, the average electronics hacker probably has never encountered one. That ends today.

Due to the efficiencies of the modern on-line marketplace, these rare beasts of the diode world are not completely unobtainable. Although new-production diodes are difficult for individuals to get their hands on, a wide range of surplus tunnel diodes can still be found on eBay for as little as $1 each in lots of ten. While you’d be better off with any number of modern technologies for new designs, exploring the properties of these odd devices can be an interesting learning experience.

For this installment, I dug deep into my collection of semiconductor exotica for some Russian 3И306M gallium arsenide tunnel diodes that I purchased a few years ago. Let’s have a look at what you can do with just a diode — if it’s the right kind, that is.

[Note: the images are all small in the article; click them to get a full-sized version]

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Fun With Negative Resistance: Jellybean Transistors

The concept of negative resistance has always fascinated me. Of course, a true negative resistance is not possible, and what is meant is a negative differential resistance (NDR). But of course knowing the correct term doesn’t do anything to demystify the topic. Negative resistance sounds like an unusual effect, but it turns out to be relatively common, showing up in places like neon lamps and a number of semiconductor structures. Now’s as good a time as any to dig in and learn more about this common principle.

NDR means a portion of a device’s I/V curve where the current falls with increasing applied voltage. The best-known semiconductor device exhibiting negative resistance is the tunnel diode, also known as the Esaki diode after one of the Nobel-Prize-winning discoverers of the quantum tunneling effect responsible for its operation. These diodes can perform at tremendous speeds; the fastest oscilloscope designs relied on them for many years. As the transistor and other technologies improved, however, these diodes were sidelined for many applications, and new-production models aren’t widely available — a sad state for would-be NDR hackers. But, all hope is not lost.

Rummaging through some old notebooks, I rediscovered an NDR design I came up with in 2002 using two common NPN transistors and a handful of resistors; many readers will already have the components necessary to experiment with similar circuits. In this article, we’ll have a look at what you can do with junkbox-class parts, and in a future article we’ll explore the topic with some real tunnel diodes.

So, let’s see what you can do with a couple of jellybean transistors!

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Super In-Depth $15 Curve Tracer Project

[Jason Jones] has always wanted a curve tracer for his home shop. When he was starting out in electronics he fell in love with a machine called a Huntron Tracker 2000. This machine would feed a sine wave into a circuit on one side and plot a XY graph on the other.

[Jason] figured that with a modern microcontroller such a device could be build simply and cheaply for around $15 dollars. With that requirement in mind he set out to build it. He selected a PIC24F16KM202 for the brain and got to work.

The write-up is really great. It’s rare that someone puts every step of their development and design thinking into writing. Some have argued that this is the only true way to have an OSHW hardware project. The series covers everything from the initial requirements and parts selection to the software development and eventual testing of the device.

[Jason] managed to build a pretty capable little curve tracer in the end. We really enjoyed it when he used the tracer to debug the tracer.