FET: Fun Endeavors Together

Last time, we’ve looked over FET basics, details, nuances and caveats. Basics aren’t all there is to FETs, however – let’s go through real-world uses, in all their wonderful variety! I want to show you a bunch of cool circuits where a friendly FET, specifically a MOSFET, can help you – and, along the way, I’d also like to introduce you to a few FETs that I feel like you all could have a good long-term friendship with. If you don’t already know them, that is!

Driving Relays

Perhaps, that’s the single most popular use for an NPN transistor – driving coils, like relays or solenoids. We are quite used to driving relays with BJTs, typically an NPN – but it doesn’t have to be a BJT, FETs often will do the job just as fine! Here’s an N-FET, used in the exact same configuration as a typical BJT is, except instead of a base current limiting resistor, we have a gate-source resistor – you can’t quite solder the BJT out and solder the FET in after you have designed the board, but it’s a pretty seamless replacement otherwise. The freewheel (back EMF protection) diode is still needed for when you switch the relay and the coil produces wacky voltages in protest, but hey, can’t have every single aspect be superior.

The reason you can drive it the same way is quite simple: in the usual NPN circuit, the relay is driven by a 3.3 V or a 5 V logic level GPIO, and for small signal FETs, that is well within Vgs. However, if your MCU has 1.8 V GPIOs and your FET’s Vgs doesn’t quite cut it, an NPN transistor is a more advantageous solution, since that one will work as long as you can source the whatever little current and the measly 0.7 V needed.

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FET: The Friendly Efficient Transistor

If you ever work with a circuit that controls a decent amount of current, you will often encounter a FET – a Field-Effect Transistor. Whether you want to control a couple of powerful LEDs, switch a USB device on and off, or drive a motor, somewhere in the picture, there’s usually a FET doing the heavy lifting. You might not be familiar with how a FET works, how to use one and what are the caveats – let’s go through the basics.

Here’s a simple FET circuit that lets you switch power to, say, a USB port, kind of like a valve that interrupts the current flow. This circuit uses a P-FET – to turn the power on, open the FET by bringing the GATE signal down to ground level, and to switch it off, close the FET by bringing the GATE back up, where the resistor holds it by default. If you want to control it from a 3.3 V MCU that can’t handle the high-side voltage on its pins, you can add a NPN transistor section as shown – this inverts the logic, making it into a more intuitive “high=on, low=off”, and, you no longer risk a GPIO!

This circuit is called a high-side switch – it enables you to toggle power to a device at will through a FET. It’s the most popular usecase for a FET, and if you’re wondering more about high-side switches, I highly recommend this brilliant article by our own [Bil Herd], where he shows you high-side switch basics in a simple and clear way. For this article, you can use this schematic as a reference of how FETs are typically used in a circuit.

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A Transistor? Memory? Wait, It’s Both!

What do you get if you cross graphene, hexagonal boron nitride, and tungsten diselenide? Well, according to researchers at Hunan University, you get a field effect transistor that can act as both a switching element or a memory cell. The partial floating-gate field-effect transistor or PFGFET uses 2D van der Waals heterostructures to deal with isolated atomic layers. The paper in Nature is unfortunately behind a pay wall, but you can read a summary over on [TechExplore].

The graphene acts as the gate, and the transistor can be switched between n-type behavior and p-type behavior. It can also be configured as a switching element or as a memory element similar to an EEPROM cell.

One advantage of having configurable transistor types is that a single transistor structure can produce CMOS or complementary circuits. Traditionally, a CMOS IC has two different transistor structures and often producing one of them requires extra effort.

The configuration takes place by applying a control voltage pulse. A negative control voltage produces a p-type FET and a positive voltage configures the same transistor as an n-type. If you don’t have access to the paper, the figures available online offer a good bit of insight into the device’s design.

If you want to learn more about ordinary MOSFETs, we talk about them often. You can also get the skinny on CMOS from [Bil Herd].

Just How Simple Can A Transceiver Be?

We’ve frequently talked about amateur radio on these pages, both in terms of the breadth of the hobby and the surprisingly low barrier to entry. It’s certainly the case that amateur radio does not have to mean endlessly calling CQ on SSB with an eye-wateringly expensive rig, and [Bill Meara N2CQR] is on hand with a description of a transceiver that’s so simple it only uses one transistor.

It’s a 40 meter (7 MHz) QRP or low power transceiver in which the transmitter is a simple crystal oscillator and the receiver is an equally simple regenerative design. What makes it so simple is the addition of a three-way switch to transfer the single transistor — a J310 FET — between the two halves of the circuit. It’s no slouch as QRP radios go, having clocked up real-world contacts.

This circuit shows us how a little can go a long way in the world of amateur radio, and we can’t help liking it for that. It’s worth saying though that it’s not without flaws, as a key click filter and another transistor would make for a much higher quality transmitted signal. But then it would no longer be a single-transistor rig, and thus would miss the point, wouldn’t it.

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Hackaday Links: August 25, 2019

Doesn’t the Z-axis on 3D-printers seem a little – underused? I mean, all it does is creep up a fraction of a millimeter as the printer works through each slice. It would be nice if it could work with the other two axes and actually do something interesting. Which is exactly what’s happening in the nonplanar 3D-printing methods being explored at the University of Hamburg. Printing proceeds normally up until the end, when some modifications to Slic3r allow smooth toolpaths to fill in the stairsteps and produce a smooth(er) finish. It obviously won’t work for all prints or printers, but it’s nice to see the Z-axis finally pulling its weight.

If you want to know how something breaks, best to talk to someone who looks inside broken stuff for a living. [Roger Cicala] from LensRentals.com spends a lot of time doing just that, and he has come to some interesting conclusions about how electronics gear breaks. For his money, the prime culprit in camera and lens breakdowns is side-mounted buttons and jacks. The reason why is obvious once you think about it: components mounted perpendicular to the force needed to operate them are subject to a torque. That’s a problem when the only thing holding the component to the board is a few SMD solder pads. He covers some other interesting failure modes, too, and the whole article is worth a read to learn how not to design a robust product.

In the seemingly neverending quest to build the world’s worst Bitcoin mining rig, behold the 8BitCoin. It uses the 6502 processor in an Apple ][ to perform the necessary hashes, and it took a bit of doing to port the 32-bit SHA256 routines to an 8-bit platform. But therein lies the hack. But what about performance? Something something heat death of the universe…

Contributing Editor [Tom Nardi] dropped a tip about a new online magazine for people like us. Dubbed Paged Out!, the online quarterly ‘zine is a collection of contributed stories from hackers, programmers, retrocomputing buffs, and pretty much anyone with something to say. Each article is one page and is formatted however the author wants to, which leads to some interesting layouts. You can check out the current issue here; they’re still looking for a bunch of articles for the next issue, so maybe consider writing up something for them – after you put it on Hackaday.io, of course.

Tipline stalwart [Qes] let us know about an interesting development in semiconductor manufacturing. Rather than concentrating on making transistors smaller, a team at Tufts University is making transistors from threads. Not threads of silicon, or quantum threads, or threads as a metaphor for something small and high-tech. Actual threads, like for sewing. Of course, there’s plenty more involved, like carbon nanotubes — hey, it was either that or graphene, right? — gold wires, and something called an ionogel that holds the whole thing together in a blob of electrolyte. The idea is to remove all rigid components and make truly flexible circuits. The possibilities for wearable sensors could be endless.

And finally, here’s a neat design for an ergonomic utility knife. It’s from our friend [Eric Strebel], an industrial designer who has been teaching us all a lot about his field through his YouTube channel. This knife is a minimalist affair, designed for those times when you need more than an X-Acto but a full utility knife is prohibitively bulky. [Eric’s] design is a simple 3D-printed clamshell that holds a standard utility knife blade firmly while providing good grip thanks to thoughtfully positioned finger depressions. We always get a kick out of watching [Eric] design little widgets like these; there’s a lot to learn from watching his design process.

Thanks to [JRD] and [mgsouth] for tips.

Analog Failures On RF Product Cause Production Surprise

A factory is a machine. It takes a fixed set of inputs – circuit boards, plastic enclosures, optimism – and produces a fixed set of outputs in the form of assembled products. Sometimes it is comprised of real machines (see any recent video of a Tesla assembly line) but more often it’s a mixture of mechanical machines and meaty humans working together. Regardless of the exact balance the factory machine is conceived of by a production engineer and goes through the same design, iteration, polish cycle that the rest of the product does (in this sense product development is somewhat fractal). Last year [Michael Ossmann] had a surprise production problem which is both a chilling tale of a nasty hardware bug and a great reminder of how fragile manufacturing can be. It’s a natural fit for this year’s theme of going to production.

Surprise VCC glitching causing CPU reset

The saga begins with [Michael] receiving an urgent message from the factory that an existing product which had been in production for years was failing at such a high rate that they had stopped the production line. There are few worse notes to get from a factory! The issue was apparently “failure to program” and Great Scott Gadgets immediately requested samples from their manufacturer to debug. What follows is a carefully described and very educational debug session from hell, involving reverse engineering ROMs, probing errant voltage rails, and large sample sizes. [Michael] doesn’t give us a sense for how long it took to isolate but given how minute the root cause was we’d bet that it was a long, long time.

The post stands alone as an exemplar for debugging nasty hardware glitches, but we’d like to call attention to the second root cause buried near the end of the post. What stopped the manufacturer wasn’t the hardware problem so much as a process issue which had been exposed. It turned out the bug had always been reproducible in about 3% of units but the factory had never mentioned it. Why? We’d suspect that [Michael]’s guess is correct. The operators who happened to perform the failing step had discovered a workaround years ago and transparently smoothed the failure over. Then there was a staff change and the new operator started flagging the failure instead of fixing it. Arguably this is what should have been happening the entire time, but in this one tiny corner of the process the manufacturing process had been slightly deviated from. For a little more color check out episode #440.2 of the Amp Hour to hear [Chris Gammell] talk about it with [Michael]. It’s a good reminder that a product is only as reliable as the process that builds it, and that process isn’t always as reliable as it seems.

Julius Lilienfeld And The First Transistor

Here’s a fun exercise: take a list of the 20th century’s inventions and innovations in electronics, communications, and computing. Make sure you include everything, especially the stuff we take for granted. Now, cross off everything that can’t trace its roots back to the AT&T Corporation’s research arm, the Bell Laboratories. We’d wager heavily that the list would still contain almost everything that built the electronics age: microwave communications, data networks, cellular telephone, solar cells, Unix, and, of course, the transistor.

But is that last one really true? We all know the story of Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley, the brilliant team laboring through a blizzard in 1947 to breathe life into a scrap of germanium and wires, finally unleashing the transistor upon the world for Christmas, a gift to usher us into the age of solid state electronics. It’s not so simple, though. The quest for a replacement for the vacuum tube for switching and amplification goes back to the lab of  Julius Lilienfeld, the man who conceived the first field-effect transistor in the mid-1920s.

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