Video: Putting High Speed PCB Design to the Test

Designing circuit boards for high speed applications requires special considerations. This you already know, but what exactly do you need to do differently from common board layout? Building on where I left off discussing impedance in 2 layer Printed Circuit Board (PCB) designs, I wanted to start talking about high speed design techniques as they relate to PCBs.  This is the world of multi-layer PCBs and where the impedance of both the Power Delivery Network (PDN) and the integrity of the signals themselves (Signal Integrity or SI) become very important factors.

I put together a few board designs to test out different situations that affect high speed signals. You’ve likely heard of vias and traces laid out at right angles having an impact. But have you considered how the glass fabric weave in the board itself impacts a design? In this video I grabbed some of my fanciest test equipment and put these design assumptions to the test. Have a look and then join me after the break for more details on what went into this!

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A Look at Liquid Dielectrics

One evening quite a few years ago, as I was driving through my hometown I saw the telltale flashing lights of the local volunteer fire department ahead. I passed by a side road where all the activity was: a utility pole on fire. I could see smoke and flames shooting from the transformer and I could hear the loud, angry 60 Hz buzzing that sounded like a million hornet nests. As I passed, the transformer exploded and released a cloud of flaming liquid that rained down on the road and lawns underneath. It seemed like a good time to quit rubbernecking and beat it as fast as I could.

I knew at the time that the flaming liquid was transformer oil, but I never really knew what it was for or why it was in there. Oil is just one of many liquid dielectrics that are found in a lot of power distribution equipment, from those transformers on the pole to the big capacitors and switchgear in the local substation. Liquid dielectrics are interesting materials that are worth taking a look at.

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Low-Quality Capacitors Turned Into High-Quality Temperature Sensors

When life hands you a bunch of crummy capacitors, what do you do? Make a whole bunch of temperature sensors, apparently.

The less-than-stellar caps in question came to [pyromaniac303] by way of one of those all-in-one assortment kits we so love to buy. Stocked with capacitors of many values, kits like these are great to have around, especially when they’ve got high-quality components in them. But not all ceramic caps are created equal, and [pyromaniac303] was determined not to let the lesser-quality units go to waste. A quick look at the data sheets revealed that the caps with the Y5V dielectric had a suitably egregious temperature coefficient to serve as a useful sensor. A fleck of perf-board holds a cap and a series resistor; the capacitor is charged by an Arduino output pin through the resistor, and the time it takes for the input pin connected to the other side of the cap to go high is measured. Charge time is proportional to temperature, and a few calibration runs showed that the response is pretty linear. Unfortunately the temperature coefficient peaks at 10°C and drops sharply below that point, making the sensor useful only on one side of the peak. Still, it’s an interesting way to put otherwise unloved parts to use, and a handy tip to keep in mind.

Temperature sensing isn’t the only trick capacitors can do. We’ve seen them turned into touch sensors before, and used to turn a 3D-printer into a 3D-scanner.

Oil-Immersed Raspberry Pi Keeps Its Cool Under Heavy Loads

As a general rule, liquids and electronics don’t mix. One liquid bucks that trend, though, and can contribute greatly to the longevity of certain circuits: oil. Dielectric oil cools and insulates everything from the big mains transformers on the pole to switchgear in the substation. But what about oil for smaller circuits?

[Lord_of_Bone] was curious to see if an oil-cooled Raspberry Pi is possible, and the short answer is: for the most part, yes. The experimental setup seen in the video below is somewhat crude — just a Pi running Quake 3 for an hour to really run up the CPU temperature, which is monitored remotely. With or without heatsinks mounted, in free air the Pi ranges from about 50°C at idle to almost 70°C under load, which is pretty darn hot. Dunking the Pi in a bath of plain vegetable oil, which he admits was a poor choice, changes those numbers dramatically: 37°C at idle and an only warmish 48°C after an hour of gaming. He also tested the Pi post-cleaning, which is where he hit a minor hiccup. The clean machine started fine but suffered from a series of reboots shortly thereafter. Twelve hours later the Pi was fine, though, so he figures a few stray drops of water that hadn’t yet evaporated were to blame.

Is oil immersion a practical way to cool a Pi? Probably not. It doesn’t mean people haven’t tried it before, of course, but we applaud the effort and the careful experimentation.

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DIY Capacitive Rotational Encoder on the Cheap with FR4

Rotary encoders are critical to many applications, even at the hobbyist level. While considering his own rotary encoding needs for upcoming projects, it occurred to [Jan Mrázek] to try making his own DIY capacitive rotary encoder. If successful, such an encoder could be cheap and very fast; it could also in part be made directly on a PCB.

First prototype, two etched plates with transparent tape as dielectric material. Disc is 15 mm in diameter.

The encoder design [Jan] settled on was to make a simple adjustable plate capacitor using PCB elements with transparent tape as the dielectric material. This was used as the timing element for a 555 timer in astable mode. A 555 in this configuration therefore generates a square wave that changes in proportion to how much the plates in the simple capacitor overlap. Turn the plate, and the square wave’s period changes in response. Response time would be fast, and a 555 and some PCB space is certainly cheap materials-wise.

The first prototype gave positive results but had a lot of problems, including noise and possibly a sensitivity to temperature and humidity. The second attempt refined the design and had much better results, with an ESP32 reliably reading 140 discrete positions at a rate of 100 kHz. It seems that there is a tradeoff between resolution and speed; lowering the rate allows more positions to be reliably detected. There are still issues, but ultimately [Jan] feels that high-speed capacitive encoders requiring little more than some PCB real estate and some 555s are probably feasible.

This project is a reminder that FR4 (whether copper-clad, etched, or blank) shows up in clever applications: copper tape and blank FR4 can be used to quickly prototype RF filters, PocketNC built an entire small CNC tool around FR4, and our own [Voja] wrote a full guide on making beautiful enclosures from FR4.

How to Measure the Dielectric Constant for DIY Capacitors

Every now and then you need to make your own capacitor. That includes choosing a dielectric for it, the insulating material that goes between the plates. One dielectric material that I use a lot is paraffin wax which can be found in art stores and is normally used for making candles. Another is resin, the easiest to find being automotive resin used for automotive body repairs.

The problem is that you sometimes need to do the calculations for the capacitor dimensions ahead of time, rather than just throwing something together. And that means you need to know the dielectric constant of the dielectric material. That’s something that the manufacturer of the paraffin wax that makes it for art stores won’t know, nor will the manufacturers of automotive body repair resin. The intended customers just don’t care.

It’s therefore left up to you to measure the dielectric constant yourself, and here I’ll talk about the method I use for doing that.

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History of the Capacitor – The Pioneering Years

The history of capacitors starts in the pioneering days of electricity. I liken it to the pioneering days of aviation when you made your own planes out of wood and canvas and struggled to leap into the air, not understanding enough about aerodynamics to know how to stay there. Electricity had a similar period. At the time of the discovery of the capacitor our understanding was so primitive that electricity was thought to be a fluid and that it came in two forms, vitreous electricity and resinous electricity. As you’ll see below, it was during the capacitor’s early years that all this changed.

The history starts in 1745. At the time, one way of generating electricity was to use a friction machine. This consisted of a glass globe rotated at a few hundred RPM while you stroked it with the palms of your hands. This generated electricity on the glass which could then be discharged. Today we call the effect taking place the triboelectric effect, which you can see demonstrated here powering an LCD screen.

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