Have you ever thought that Nixie tubes are cool but too hard to control with modern electronics? And that they’re just too expensive? [david.reid] apparently thought so and decided to create his own version of a Nixie tube, and it doesn’t get much cheaper than this.
While working on a 3D printed locomotive with his son, [david.reid] used clear PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol) 3D printer filament to move light from LEDs to various parts of the locomotive. He found this was a success, but roughed up the outside of the filament to see what would happen. Lo and behold, a warm glow appeared on the surface of the tube! Like any good hacker, his next thought was of Nixie tubes, as you have seeninmanyclocks.
His basic idea is that with a little heat you can bend the filament into any shape that you like ([david.reid] uses custom molds). You then use some sandpaper to roughen up the outside wherever you’d like light to show, and add an LED at the bottom to light it up!
The filaments consist of 28 LEDs connected in series. The blue LEDs are covered by the typical yellow phosphors to make them glow white. It’s interesting to note that some of the filaments use a removable silicone sleeve to hold the phosphor coating, while others are coated with a resin material. The LEDs themselves are bare dies mounted to a metal strip and joined by bond wires. The entire strip can be bent, but be careful, or you’ll break the fragile bond wires.
The strips do require a fair bit of voltage to operate. The entire strip runs best at around 75 and 10~15 mA, while putting out about 1 Watt of light. [Mike] tested a strip to destruction by pumping 40 mA through it. Predictably the strip went out when the bond wires melted. The surprising part was that the strip blinked back on as the wires cooled and re-connected. The strip and wires were working as a temperature controlled switch, similar to the bimetalic strip found in old fashioned “twinkling” incandescent Christmas lights.
Not satisfied with simple tests, [Mike] went on to build a clock using the filaments as elements of a seven segment display. Inspired by numitron and minitron displays, [Mike] built a single sided PCB which held the clock circuit on the bottom and the LED filaments on top. The filaments are spaced off the board by tall wire wrap sockets, which proved to be difficult to keep from shorting out. Texas Instruments TPIC6B595 chips were used to control the LED filaments. Logically the chip functions the same as a 75LS595, which means it can be driven with a SPI bus. The open drain outputs can handle 50 volts – which makes them perfect for this application. The clock is tremendously bright, but there is still a bit of room for improvement. [Mike] notes that the phosphor of un-powered filaments tend to glow a bit due to light absorbed from nearby illuminated filaments. He’s experimenting with color filters to reduce this effect. At full power though, [Mike] says this clock would easily be daylight readable, and we don’t doubt it!
[Mike’s] final test was a bit whimsical – he built a cube entirely from the LED filaments. The cube looks awesome, but we can’t wait to see who will move things into the 4th dimension and build a tesseract!