Tracking Down Radio Frequency Noise Source, With Help From Mother Nature

Amateur radio operators and shortwave listeners have a common enemy: QRM, which is ham-speak for radio frequency interference caused by man-made sources. Indiscriminate, often broadband in nature, and annoying as hell, QRM spews forth from all kinds of sources, and can be difficult to locate and fix.

But [Emilio Ruiz], an operator from Mexico, got a little help from Mother Nature recently in his quest to lower his noise floor. Having suffered from a really annoying blast of RFI across wide swaths of the radio spectrum for months, a summer thunderstorm delivered a blessing in disguise: a power outage. Hooking his rig up to a battery — all good operators are ready to switch to battery power at a moment’s notice — he was greeted by blessed relief from all that noise. Whatever had caused the problem was obviously now offline.

Rather than waste the quiet time on searching down the culprit, [Emilio] worked the bands until the power returned, and with it the noise. He killed the main breaker in the house and found that the noise abated, leading him on a search of the premises with a portable shortwave receiver. The culprit? Unsurprisingly, it was a cheap laptop power supply. [Emilio] found that the switch-mode brick was spewing RFI over a 200-meter radius; a dissection revealed that the “ferrite beads” intended to suppress RFI emissions were in fact just molded plastic fakes, and that the cord they supposedly protected was completely unshielded.

We applaud [Emilio]’s sleuthing for the inspiration it gives to hunt down our own noise-floor raising sources. It kind of reminds us of a similar effort by [Josh (KI6NAZ)] a while back.

Digging In The Dirt Yields Homebrew Inductors

Let’s say you’re stranded on a desert island and want to get the news from the outside world. You’ll have to build your own crystal radio, of course, but your parts bin is nowhere to be found and Digi-Key isn’t delivering. So you’ll need to MacGuyver some components. Capacitors are easy with a couple of pieces of tinfoil, and a rectifier can be made from a pencil and a razor blade. But what about an inductor? Sure, air-core inductors will work, but just because you’re marooned doesn’t mean you’ve abandoned your engineering principles. Luckily, you’ve read [AC7ZL]’s treatise of making inductors from dirt, and with sand in abundance, you’re able to harvest enough material to put together some passable ferrite-core inductors.

Obviously, making your own inductive elements isn’t practical even in fanciful and contrived situations, but that doesn’t make the doing of it any less cool. The story begins with a walk in the Arizona desert many years ago, where [AC7ZL], aka [H.P. Friedrichs], spied bands of dark sand shooting through the underlying lighter sediments. These bands turned out to be magnetite, one of many iron-bearing minerals found in the area. Using a powerful magnet from an old hard drive and a plastic food container, he was able to harvest magnetite sand in abundance and refine it with multiple washing steps.

After experimentally determining the material’s permeability — about 2.3 H/m — [AC7ZL] proceeded with some practical applications. He was able to make a bar antenna for an AM radio by packing the sand into a PVC pipe and rewinding the coils around it. More permanent cores were made by mixing the sand with polyester resin and casting it into bars. Toroids were machined from fat bars of the composite on a lathe, much to the detriment of the cutting tools used.

The full-length PDF account of [AC7ZL]’s experiments makes for fascinating reading — the inductive elements he was able to create all performed great in everything from a Joule Thief to a Hartley oscillator up to 27 MHz. We love these kinds of stories, which remind us of some of the work being done by [Simplifier] and others.

Homebrew Coil Winder Makes Toroids A Snap To Wind

Anyone who has ever wound a toroidal coil by hand can tell you that it’s not exactly a fun job. Even with the kinds of coils used in chokes and transformers for ham radio, which generally have relatively few windings, passing all that wire through the toroid time after time is a pain. And woe unto anyone who guesses wrong on how much wire the job will take.

To solve those problems, [Sandeep] came up with this clever and effective toroid winder. The idea is to pass a small spool of magnet wire through the toroid’s core while simultaneously rotating the toroid to spread the windings out as evenly as possible. That obviously requires a winding ring that can be opened up to allow the toroid form to be inserted; [Sandeep] chose to make his winding ring out of plywood with a slit in it. Carrying the wire spool, the winding ring rotates on a C-shaped fixture that brackets the toroid, which itself rotates under stepper motor control on a trio of rollers. An Arduino controls the rotation of both motors, controlling the number of windings and their spread on the form. lacking a ferrite core for testing, [Sandeep] used a plywood ring as a stand-in, but the results are satisfying enough to make any manual coil-winder envious.

We love tools like this that make a boring job a snap. Whether it’s cutting wires for wiring harnesses or winding guitar pickups, tools like these are well worth the time spent to build them. But we suppose when it comes to toroid winding, one could always cheat.

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A Practical Look At Chokes For EMI Control

Radio frequency electronics can seem like a black art even to those who intentionally delve into the field. But woe betide the poor soul who only incidentally has to deal with it, such as when seeking to minimize electromagnetic interference. This primer on how RF chokes work to reduce EMI is a great way to get explain the theory from a practical, results-oriented standpoint.

As a hobby machinist and builder of machine tools, [James Clough] has come across plenty of cases where EMI has reared its ugly head. Variable frequency drives are one place where EMI can cause problems, and chokes on the motor phase outputs are generally prescribed. He used an expensive choke marketed as specific for VFD applications on one of his machines, but wondered if a cheap ferrite core would do the job just as well, and set to find out.

A sweep of some ferrite cores with a borrowed vector network analyzer proved unsatisfying, so [James] set up a simple experiment with a function generator and an oscilloscope. His demo shows how the impedance of a choke increases with the frequency of the test signal, which is exactly the behavior that you’d want in a VFD – pass the relatively low-frequency phase signals while blocking the high-frequency EMI. For good measure, he throws a capacitor in parallel to the choke and shows how much better a low-pass filter that makes.

We love demos like this that don’t just scratch an intellectual itch but also have a practical goal. [James] not only showed that (at least in some cases) a $13 ferrite can do the same job as a $130 VFD choke, but he showed how they work. It’s basic stuff, but it’s what you need to know to move on to more advanced RF filter designs.

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The RFI Hunter: Looking For Noise In All The Wrong Places

Next time you get a new device and excitedly unwrap its little poly-wrapped power supply, remember this: for every switch-mode power supply you plug in, an amateur radio operator sheds a tear. A noisy, broadband, harmonic-laden tear.

The degree to which this fact disturbs you very much depends upon which side of the mic you’re on, but radio-frequency interference, or RFI, is something we should all at least be aware of. [Josh (KI6NAZ)] is keenly aware of RFI in his ham shack, but rather than curse the ever-rising noise floor he’s come up with some helpful tips for hunting down and eliminating it – or at least reducing its impact.

Attacking the problem begins with locating the sources of RFI, for which [Josh] used the classic “one-circuit-at-a-time” approach – kill every breaker in the panel and monitor the noise floor while flipping each breaker back on. This should at least give you a rough idea of where the offending devices are in your house. From there, [Josh] used a small shortwave receiver to locate problem areas, like the refrigerator, the clothes dryer, and his shack PC. The family flat-screen TV proved to be quite noisy too. Remediation techniques include wrapping every power cord and cable around toroids or clamping ferrite cores around them, both on the offending devices and in the shack. He even went so far as to add a line filter to the dryer to clamp down on its unwanted interference.

Judging by his waterfall displays, [Josh]’s efforts paid off, bringing his noise floor down from S5 to S1 or so. It’s too bad he had to take matters into his own hands – it’s not like the FCC and other spectrum watchdogs don’t know there’s a problem, after all.

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Junkbox Freezer Alarm Keeps Steaks Safe

A fully stocked freezer can be a blessing, but it’s also a disaster waiting to happen. Depending on your tastes, there could be hundreds of dollars worth of food in there, and the only thing between it and the landfill is an uninterrupted supply of electricity. Keep the freezer in an out-of-the-way spot and your food is at even greater risk.

Mitigating that risk is the job of this junkbox power failure alarm. [Derek]’s freezer is in the garage, where GFCI outlets are mandated by code. We’ve covered circuit protection before, including GFCIs, and while they can save a life, they can also trip accidentally and cost you your steaks. [Derek] whipped up a simple alarm based on current flow to the freezer. A home-brew current transformer made from a split ferrite core and some magnet wire is the sensor, and a couple of op-amps and a 555 timer make up the detection and alarm part. And it’s all junk bin stuff — get a load of that Mallory Sonalert from 1983!

Granted, loss of power on a branch circuit is probably one of the less likely failure modes for a freezer, but the principles are generally applicable and worth knowing. And hats off to [Derek] for eschewing the microcontroller and rolling this old school. Not that there’s anything wrong with IoT fridge and freezer alarms.

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Recapture Radio’s Roots With An Updated Regenerative Receiver

Crystal radios used to be the “gateway drug” into hobby electronics. Trouble was, there’s only so much one can hope to accomplish with a wire-wrapped oatmeal carton, a safety-pin, and a razor blade. Adding a few components and exploring the regenerative circuit can prove to be a little more engaging, and that’s where this simple breadboard regen radio comes in.

Sometimes it’s the simple concepts that can capture the imagination, and revisiting the classics is a great way to do it. Basically a reiteration of [Armstrong]’s original 1912 regenerative design, [VonAcht] uses silicon where glass was used, but the principle is the same. A little of the amplified RF signal is fed back into the tuned circuit through an additional coil on the ferrite rod that acts as the receiver’s antenna. Positive feedback amplifies the RF even more, a germanium diode envelope detector demodulates the signal, and the audio is passed to a simple op amp stage for driving a headphone.

Amenable to solderless breadboarding, or even literal breadboard construction using dead bug or Manhattan wiring, the circuit invites experimentation and looks like fun to fiddle with. And getting a handle on analog and RF concepts is always a treat.

[via r/electronics]