Copper: Rectifying AC A Century Ago

[Robert Murray-Smith] presents for us an interesting electronic device from years gone by, before the advent of Silicon semiconductors, the humble metal oxide rectifier. After the electronic dust had settled following the brutal AC/DC current wars of the late 19th century — involving Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse to name a few of the ringleaders — AC was the eventual winner. But there was a problem. It’s straightforward to step down the high voltage AC from the distribution network to a more manageable level with a transformer, and feed that straight into devices which can consume alternating current such as light bulbs and electrical heaters. But other devices really want DC, and to get that, you need a rectifier.

It turns out, that even in those early days, we had semiconductor devices which could perform this operation, based not upon silicon or germanium, but copper. Copper (I) Oxide is a naturally occurring P-type semiconductor, which can be easily constructed by heating a copper sheet in a flame, and scraping off the outer layer of Copper (II) Oxide leaving the active layer below. Simply making contact to a piece of steel is sufficient to complete the device.

Obviously a practical rectifier is a bit harder to make, with a degree of control required, but you get the idea. A CuO metal rectifier can rectify as well as operate as a thermopile, and even as a solar cell, it’s just been forgotten about once we got all excited about silicon.

Other similar metallic rectifiers also saw some action, such as the Selenium rectifier, based on the properties of a Cadmium Selenide – Selenium interface, which forms an NP junction, albeit one that can’t handle as much power as good old copper. One final device, which was a bit of an improvement upon the original CuO rectifiers, was based upon a stack of Copper Sulphide/Magnesium metal plates, but they came along too late. Once we discovered the wonders of germanium and silicon, it was consigned to the history books before it really saw wide adoption.

We’ve covered CuO rectifiers before, but the Copper Sulphide/Magnesium rectifier is new to us. And if you’re interested in yet more ways to steer electrons in one direction, checkout our coverage of the history of the diode.

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A 7805 Regulator puts out 6.3 Volts

Simple Electronic Hacks Inspire Doing More With Less

It’s late at night. The solder smoke keeps getting in your tired eyes, but your project is nearly done. The main circuit is powered by your 13.8 V bench supply, but part of the circuit needs 9 V. You dig into your stash to find your last LM7809 voltage regulator, but all you have is a bunch of LM7805’s. Are you done for the night? Not if you’ve watched [0033mer]’s Simple Electronic Circuit Hacks video! You know just what to do. The ground pin of a LM7805 connects to the cathode of a TL431 programmable Zener diode pulled from an old scrapped TV. The diode is referenced to a voltage divider, and voila! Your LM7805 is now putting out a steady 9 V.

How did [0033mer] become adept at doing more with less? As he explains in the video below, his primary source of parts in The Time Before The Internet was old TV’s that were beyond repair. Using N-Channel MOSFETs to switch AC, sensing temperature changes with signal diodes, and even replacing a 555 with a blinking LED are just a few of the hacks covered in the video below the break.

We especially appreciated the simple, to-the-point presentation that inspires us to keep on hacking in the truest sense: Doing more with less! If you enjoy a good diode hack like we do, you will likely appreciate learning Diode Basics by W2AEW, or a Diode Based Radiation Detector.

Thank you [DSM] for the tip! Be sure to submit your the cool things you come across to our Tips Line!

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What Goes Into A High Voltage Diode?

When we use an electronic component, we have some idea of what goes on inside it. We know that inside a transistor there’s a little piece of semiconductor with a junction made from differently doped regions etched into it, and in a capacitor, there will be metalized plates on the surface of some kind of dielectric. Reverse engineering has given us extensive die photography of integrated circuits, but there remain a few component mysteries to be uncovered. One is laid bare by [WizardTim], as he cross-sections a 20KV high-voltage diode.

A conventional low-voltage silicon diode has a forward voltage drop of about 0.7V and a relatively low maximum reverse voltage, for example with the 1N4001 rectifier it’s 50V.  For the higher-spec 1N4007, the reverse voltage rating is 700V. This diode has a 25KV reverse voltage, and a clue to its construction comes in its quoted 45V forward voltage. Sure enough, when mounted in resin and carefully sanded and polished flat it reveals its interior as a stack of diodes in series to increase the reverse voltage at the expense of forward voltage.

Revealing the inner workings of an unusual component is fascinating, and the lapping technique used is definitely worth a look. It’s something we’ve seen before, for example in reducing CPU thickness for increased performance.

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Reverse Engineering A Module From A Vacuum Tube Computer

It’s best to admit upfront that vacuum tubes can be baffling to some of the younger generation of engineers. Yes, we get how electron flow from cathode to anode can be controlled with a grid, and how that can be used to amplify and control current. But there are still some things that just don’t always to click when looking at a schematic for a tube circuit. Maybe we just grew up at the wrong time.

Someone who’s clearly not old enough to have ridden the first wave of electronics but still seems to have mastered the concepts of thermionic emission is [Usagi Electric], who has been doing some great work on reverse engineering modules from old vacuum tube computers. The video below focuses on a two-tube pluggable module from an IBM 650, a machine that dates clear back to 1954. The eBay find was nothing more than two tube sockets and a pair of resistors joined to a plug by a hoop of metal. With almost nothing to go on, [Usagi] was still able to figure out what tubes would have gone in the sockets — the nine-pin socket was a big clue — and determine that the module was likely a dual NAND gate. To test his theory, [Usagi] took some liberties with the original voltages used by IBM and built a breakout PCB. It’s an interesting mix of technologies, but he was able to walk through the truth table and confirm that his module is a dual NAND gate.

The video is a bit long but it’s chock full of tidbits that really help clear up how tubes work. Along with some help from this article about how triodes work, this will put you on the path to thermionic enlightenment.

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Tiny Laser Cutter Puts Micro Steppers To Work

The influx of cheap laser cutters from China has been a boon to the maker movement, if at the cost of a lot of tinkering to just get the thing to work. So some people just prefer to roll their own, figuring that starting from scratch means you get exactly what you want. And apparently what [Mike Rankin] wanted was a really, really small laser cutter.

The ESP32 Burninator, as [Mike] lovingly calls his creation, is small enough to be in danger of being misplaced accidentally. The stage relies on tiny stepper-actuated linear drives, available on the cheap from AliExpress. The entire mechanical structure is two PCBs — a vertical piece that holds the ESP32, an OLED display, the X-axis motor, and the driver for the laser, which comes from an old DVD burner; a smaller bottom board holds the Y-axis and the stage. “Stage” is actually a rather grand term for the postage-stamp-sized working area of this cutter, but the video below shows that it does indeed cut black paper.

The cuts are a bit wonky, but this is surely to be expected given the running gear, and we like it regardless. It sort of reminds us of that resin 3D-printer small enough to fit in a Christmas ornament that [Sean Hodgins] did a while back. We’d suggest not trying to hang this on a tree, though.

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Diode Basics By [W2AEW]

We didn’t think we needed a basic guide to diodes until we saw it was from [W2AEW], and then we knew we’d pick up some new things. Entitled “Diodes from Ideal to Real” the 18-minute video doesn’t disappoint with a mix of notes and time with a curve tracer to learn all about these devices.

As is typical for a [W2AEW] video this doesn’t just cover the simple operation of diode. It includes topics such as dynamic resistance, junction capacitance, and talks about a wide variety of diode types.

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Negative Voltage Pushes AVR To New Heights

If we say that a hacker is somebody who looks at a “solved” problem and can still come up with multiple alternative solutions, then [Charles Ouweland] absolutely meets the grade. Not that we needed more evidence of his hacker cred given what we’ve seen from him before, but he recently wrote in to tell us about an interesting bit of problem solving which we think is a perfect example of the principle. He wanted to drive a salvaged seven segment LED display with an AVR microcontroller, but there was only one problem: the display needs 15V but the AVR is only capable of 5V. So what to do?

As it turns out, the first step to solving the problem was verifying there was actually a problem to begin with. [Charles] did some experimentation and found that the display didn’t actually need 15V to operate, and in fact would light up well enough at just 6.5V. This lowered the bar quite a bit, but it was still too high to power directly from the chip.

There were a few common ways to solve this problem, which no doubt the Hackaday reader is well aware of. But [Charles] wanted to take the path less traveled. More specifically, the path with the least amount of additional components he had to put on his PCB. He set out to find the absolute easiest way to make his 5V AVR light up a 6.5V LED, and ended up coming with a very clever solution that some may not even know is possible.

He reasoned that if he connected the source pins of two BS170 MOSFETs to a voltage of -1.5V, even when the AVR pin was 0V, they would be still be receiving 1.5V. This virtual “step ladder” meant that once the AVR’s pin goes high (5V), the relative voltage would actually be 6.5V and enough to drive his LEDs. Of course the only problem with that is that you need to have a source for -1.5V.

Getting a negative voltage would normally require adding more components to the design (which he set out to avoid in the first place), but then he came up with another clever idea. To pull the trick off, he actually feeds the AVR 6.5V, but raises the ground voltage by 1.5V with the addition of two 1N4007 diodes. This way the AVR gets a voltage within its capabilities and still can provide a relative 6.5V to the LEDs.

One might say [Charles] took the Kobayashi Maru approach, and simply redefined the rules of the game. But such is the power of the confounding negative voltage.