Robert Hall and the Solid-State Laser

The debt we all owe must be paid someday, and for inventor Robert N. Hall, that debt came due in 2016 at the ripe age of 96. Robert Hall’s passing went all but unnoticed by everyone but his family and a few close colleagues at General Electric’s Schenectady, New York research lab, where Hall spent his remarkable career.

That someone who lives for 96% of a century would outlive most of the people he had ever known is not surprising, but what’s more surprising is that more notice of his life and legacy wasn’t taken. Without his efforts, so many of the tools of modern life that we take for granted would not have come to pass, or would have been delayed. His main contribution started with a simple but seemingly outrageous idea — making a solid-state laser. But he ended up making so many more contributions that it’s worth a look at what he accomplished over his long career.

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Two-Cent Temperature Sensors

When they need to add temperature control to a project, many hackers reach for a K-type thermocouple for their high-temperature needs, or an integrated temperature-sensing IC when it doesn’t get that hot. The thermocouple relies on very small currents and extremely high gain, and you pretty much need a dedicated IC to read it, which can be expensive. The ICs aren’t as expensive, but they’re basically limited to boiling water. What do you do if you want to control a reflow oven?

There’s a cheaper way that spans a range between Antarctic winter and molten solder, and you’ve probably already got the parts on your shelf. Even if you don’t, it’s only going to run you an extra two cents, assuming that you’ve already got a microcontroller with an ADC in your project. The BOM: a plain-vanilla diode and a resistor.

I’ve been using diodes as temperature sensors in three projects over the last year: one is a coffee roaster that brings the beans up to 220 °C in hot air, another is a reflow hotplate that tops out around 210 °C, and the third is a toner-transfer iron that holds a very stable 130 °C. In all of these cases, I don’t really care about the actual numerical value of the temperature — all that matters is reproducibility — so I never bothered to calibrate anything. I thought I’d do it right for Hackaday, and try to push the humble diode to its limits for science.

What resulted was a PCB fire, test circuits desoldering themselves above 190 °C, temperature probes coming loose, and finally a broken ramekin and 200 °C peanut oil all over my desk. Fun times! On the other hand, I managed to get out enough data to calibrate some diodes, and the results are fantastic. The circuits under test included both best practices and the easiest thing that could possibly work, and the results are pretty close. This is definitely a technique that you want to have under your belt for most temperature ranges. The devil is in the details, of course, so read on!

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Handy Continuity Tester Packs Multiple Modes into a Tiny Package

From Leatherman multitools to oscilloscopes with built-in signal generators and protocol analyzers, there seems no end to tools with multiple personalities. Everybody loves multitaskers because they make it feel like you’re getting more bang for your buck, and in most cases that’s true. But a jack of all trades is seldom master of any, and there are times when even the humble multimeter isn’t the best tool for the job.

With that in mind, [sidsingh] has developed what we think is a very nice dedicated continuity tester. With a goal of using only parts on hand, he had to think small to fit everything into the case he had. So he started with a PIC10LF322 to support all the flavors of continuity testing he wanted to support. In addition to straight continuity, the tester can handle diode testing, detecting shorted or open diodes and even differentiating between regular and Schottky diodes. It also has an LED test mode and an interesting “discontinuity” testing mode — it only sounds its buzzer when continuity is broken. The video below shows that mode in action for finding intermittent cable faults, along with all the other modes.

For an ostensibly single-purpose tool, this tester still manages to pack a lot of tests into one very compact package. Simpler continuity testers are good, too — check out this cheap dollar store build, or this slightly more complicated unit based on an ATtiny85.

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Harvesting Energy from the Earth with Quantum Tunneling

More energy hits the earth in sunlight every day than humanity could use in about 16,000 years or so, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying to tap into other sources of energy too. One source that shows promise is geothermal, but these methods have been hindered by large startup costs and other engineering challenges. A new way to tap into this energy source has been found however, which relies on capturing the infrared radiation that the Earth continuously gives off rather than digging large holes and using heat exchangers.

This energy is the thermal radiation that virtually everything gives off in some form or another. The challenge in harvesting this energy is that since the energy is in the infrared range, exceptionally tiny antennas are needed which will resonate at that frequency. It isn’t just fancy antennas, either; a new type of diode had to be manufactured which uses quantum tunneling to convert the energy into DC electricity.

While the scientists involved in this new concept point out that this is just a prototype at this point, it shows promise and could be a game-changer since it would allow clean energy to be harvested whenever needed, and wouldn’t rely on the prevailing weather. While many clean-energy-promising projects often seem like pipe dreams, we can’t say it’s the most unlikely candidate for future widespread adoption we’ve ever seen.

Active Discussion About Passive Components

People talk about active and passive components like they are two distinct classes of electronic parts. When sourcing components on a BOM, you have the passives, which are the little things that are cheaper than a dime a dozen, and then the rest that make up the bulk of the cost. Diodes and transistors definitely fall into the cheap little things category, but aren’t necessarily passive components, so what IS the difference?

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A Lesson On Zener Regulators

For the longest time, Zener diode regulators have been one of those circuits that have been widely shared and highly misunderstood. First timers have tried to use it to power up their experiments and wondered why things did not go as planned. [James Lewis] has put up a worth tutorial on the subject titled, “Zener Diode makes for a Lousy Regulator”  that clarifies the misconceptions behind using the device.

[James Lewis] does an experiment with a regulator circuit with an ESP8266 after a short introduction to Zener diodes themselves. For the uninitiated, the Zener diode can operate in the reverse bias safely and can do so at a particular voltage. This allows for the voltage across the device to be a fixed value.

This, however, depends on the current flowing through the circuit which in turn relies on the load. The circuit will work as expected for loads the draw a small amount of current. This makes it suitable for generating reference voltages for microcontrollers and such.

To make a Zener into a “proper” voltage regulator, you just need to buffer the output with an amplifier of some kind. A single transistor is the bare minimum, but actually can work pretty well. You might also add a capacitor in parallel with the Zener to smooth out some of its noise.

Zener diodes are wonderful little devices and write-ups like these are indispensable for beginners and should be shared more often like the Zener and Schottky Tutorial and Diodes as a Switch.

 

A Diode by Any Other Name

As active devices go, it doesn’t get much simpler than a diode. Two terminals. Current flows in one direction and not in the other. Simple, right? Well, then there are examples with useful side effects like light emitting diodes. [GreatScott] points out that there are other useful diodes and, in particular, he posted a video covering Schottky and Zener diodes.

These special diodes have particular purposes. A Schottky diode has a very low voltage drop and fast switching speed. Zener diodes have application in simple voltage regulation.

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