Input impedance plottet as a function of trace impedance for trace lengths of 1/10, 1/16 and 1/20 of a wavelength. (Credit: Baltic Labs)

When Does Impedance Matching A PCB Trace Become Unavoidable?

A common joke in electronics is that every piece of wire and PCB trace is an antenna, with the only difference being whether this was intentional or not. In practical terms, low-frequency wiring is generally considered to be ‘safe’, while higher frequency circuits require special considerations, including impedance (Z) matching.  Where the cut-off is between these two types of circuits is not entirely clear, however, with various rules-of-thumb in existence, as [Sebastian] over at Baltic Lab explains.

A popular rule is that no impedance matching between the trace and load is necessary if the critical length of a PCB trace (lcrit) is 1/10th of the wavelength (λ). Yet is this rule of thumb correct? Running through a number of calculations it’s obvious that the only case where the length of the PCB trace doesn’t matter is when trace and load impedance are matched.

According to these calculations, the 1/10 rule is not a great pick if your target is a mismatch loss of less than 0.1 dB, with 1/16 being a better rule. Making traces wider on the PCB can be advisable here, but ultimately you have to know what is best for your design, as each project has its own requirements. Even when the calculations look good, that’s no excuse to skip the measurement on the physical board, especially with how variable the dielectric constant of FR4 PCB material can be between different manufacturers and batches.

Heading image: Input impedance plotted as a function of trace impedance for trace lengths of 1/10, 1/16, and 1/20 of a wavelength. (Credit: Baltic Labs)

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The Dipole Antenna Isn’t As Simple As It Appears

Dipole antennas are easy, right? Just follow the formula, cut two pieces of wire, attach your feedline, and you’re on the air.  But then again, maybe not. You’re always advised to cut the legs a little long so you can trim to the right length, but why? Shouldn’t the math just be right? And what difference does wire choice make on the antenna’s characteristics? The simple dipole isn’t really that simple at all.

If you’ve got antenna questions, check out [FesZ]’s new video on resonant dipoles, which is a deep dive into some of the mysteries of the humble dipole. In true [FesZ] fashion, he starts with simulations of various dipole configurations ranging from the ideal case — a lossless conductor in free space with as close to zero diameter conductors as the MMANA antenna simulator can support — and gradually build up to more practical designs. Continue reading “The Dipole Antenna Isn’t As Simple As It Appears”

Measuring Impedance Virtually

We always enjoy a [FesZ] video and we wonder if the “Z” stands for impedance? That’s the topic of his latest video series: measuring impedance with LTSpice. Of course, he also does his usual thorough job of mapping the virtual world to the real one. You can see the video below.

It is simple enough. Impedance is very similar to resistance. That is to say, we have a ratio of voltage and current. However, since it is an AC quantity, you need a complex number to represent it and there is an associated phase shift.

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Hacker Dictionary: RS-485 Will Go The Distance

RS485 is a communication standard that should be part of the advanced hardware hacker’s arsenal; it’s not commonly encountered, but powerful exactly when you need it. It’s a physical layer interface for wired communications that uses a single differential pair for noise immunity, has good long-distance properties, and allows many connections to a single bus. Because of that, you will encounter it in security systems and even cameras, wired sensor networks, DMX512 lighting and all sorts of industrial electronics. For our hobbyist goals, you can absolutely use RS485 to build your home (or room) automation system, or a relatively large robot – without all those worries that wireless brings.

The name might remind you of RS232, and that’s because both RS232 and RS485 are standards that come from EIA (Electronics Industries Alliance). It also might remind you of RS422, if you’ve ever seen this name mentioned online – RS422 and RS485 are closely intertwined, sharing most of the physical layer, and I’ll show how exactly they relate. Continue reading “Hacker Dictionary: RS-485 Will Go The Distance”

Impedance Mismatch

There are a few classic physics problems that it can really help to have a mental map of. One is, of course, wave propagation. From big-wave surfing, through loudspeaker positioning, to quantum mechanics, having an intuition for the basic dynamics of constructive and destructive interference is key. Total energy of a system, and how it splits and trades between kinetic and potential, is another.

We were talking about using a bike generator to recharge batteries on the Podcast last night, and we stumbled on a classic impedance mismatch situation. A pedaling person can put out 100 W, and a cell phone battery wants around 5 W to charge. You could pedal extremely lightly for nearly three hours, but I’d bet you’d rather hammer the bike for 10 minutes and get on with your life. The phone wants to be charged lightly — it’s high impedance — and you want to put out all your power at once — you’re a low impedance source.

The same phenomenon explains why you have to downshift your internal combustion automobile as you slow down. In high gear, it presents too high an impedance, and the motor can only turn so slowly before stalling. This is also why all vibrating string acoustic instruments have bridges that press down on big flat flexible surfaces, and why horns are horn shaped. Air is easy to vibrate, but to be audible you want to move a lot of it, so you spread out the power. Lifting a heavy rock with human muscle power is another classic impedance mismatch.

If these are fundamentally all the same problem, then they should all have similar solutions. The gear on the bike or the car, the bridge on a cello, the flared horn on the trumpet, and the lever under the boulder all serve to convert a large force over a short distance or time or area into a lower force over more distance, time, or area.

Pop quiz! What are the common impedance converters in the world of volts and amps? The two that come to my mind are the genafsbezre and the obbfg/ohpx pbairegre (rot13!). What am I missing?

Circuit Impedance Calculations Without Cumbersome Simulations

Using circuit simulating software like SPICE can be a powerful tool for modeling the behavior of a circuit in the real world. On the other hand, it’s not always necessary to have all of the features of SPICE available all the time, and these programs tend to be quite expensive as well. To that end, [Wes Hileman] noticed an opportunity for a specific, quick method for performing impedance calculations using python without bulky, expensive software and came up with a program which he calls fastZ.

The software works on any network of passive components (resistors, capacitors, and inductors) and the user can specify parallel and series connections using special operators. Not only can the program calculate the combined impedance but it can perform frequency analysis at a specified frequency or graph the frequency response over a wide range of frequencies. It’s also running in python which makes it as simple as importing any other python package, and is also easy to implement in any other python program compared to building a simulation and hoping for the best.

If you find yourself regularly drawing Bode plots or trying to cobble together a circuit simulation to work with your python code, this sort of solution is a great way to save a lot of headache. It is possible to get the a piece of software like SPICE to to work together with other python programs though, often with some pretty interesting results.

The $50 Ham: A Cheap Antenna For The HF Bands

So far in the $50 Ham series, I’ve concentrated mainly on the VHF and UHF bands. The reason for this has to do mainly with FCC rules, which largely restrict Technician-level licensees to those bands. But there’s a financial component to it, too; high-frequency (HF) band privileges come both at the price of learning enough about radio to pass the General license test, as well as the need for gear that can be orders of magnitude more expensive than a $30 handy-talkie radio.

But while HF gear can be expensive, not everything needed to get on the air has to be so. And since it’s often the antenna that makes or breaks an amateur radio operator’s ability to make contacts, we’ll look at a simple but versatile antenna design that can be adapted to support everything from a big, powerful base station to portable QRP (low-power) activations in the field: the end-fed half-wave antenna.

Continue reading “The $50 Ham: A Cheap Antenna For The HF Bands”