From Nanoamps To Gigahertz: The World’s Most Extreme Op Amps

The operational amplifier, or op amp, is one of the most basic building blocks used in analog circuits. Ever since single-chip op amps were introduced in the 1960s, thousands of different types have been developed, some more successful than others. Ask an experienced analog designer to name a few op amps, and they’ll likely mention the LM324, the TL072, the NE5534, the LM358, and of course the granddaddy of all, the uA741.

If those part numbers don’t mean anything to you, all you need to know is that these are generic components that you can buy anywhere and that will do just fine in the most common applications. You can buy fancier op amps that improve on some spec or another, sometimes by orders of magnitude. But how far can you really push the concept of an operational amplifier? Today we’ll show you some op amps that go way beyond these typical “jellybean” components.

Before we start, let’s define what exactly we mean when we say “operational amplifier”. We’re looking for integrated op amps, meaning a single physical component, that have a differential high-impedance voltage input, a single-ended voltage output, DC coupling, and high gain meant to be used in a feedback configuration. We’re excluding anything made from discrete components, as well as less-general circuits like fixed-gain amplifiers and operational transconductance amplifiers (OTAs).

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Raspberry Pi Server Cluster In 1U Rack-Mount Case

[Paul Brown] wants to take advantage of off-site server colocation services. But the providers within [Paul]’s region typically place a limit of 1A @ 120V on each server. Rather than search out commercial low-power solutions, [Paul] embraced the hacker spirit and built his own server from five Raspberry Pi 4b single board computers.

The task involves a little bit more than just mounting five Pi4s in a chassis and calling it done. There is an Ethernet switch connecting all the modules to the network, and each Pi has a comparatively bulky SSD drive + enclosure attached. By far the most annoying part of the assembly is the power supply and distribution cabling, which is further complicated by remote controlled power switching relays (one of the computers is dedicated to power management and can shut the other four modules on and off).

Even if you’re not planning on building your own server, check out the thoroughly documented assembly process and parts list — we particularly liked the USB connector to screw terminal breakout connector that he’s using for power distribution. For all the detailed information, assembly instructions and photos, we think a top-level block diagram / interconnection drawing would be very helpful for anyone trying to understand or replicate this project.

There are a lot of connections in this box, and the final result has a messy look-and-feel. But in fairness to [Paul]’s craftsmanship, there aren’t many other ways to hook everything together given the Raspberry Pi form-factor. Maybe a large and costly PCB or using CM4 modules instead of Raspberry Pi boards could help with cable management? In the end, [Paul] reckons he shelled out about $800 for this unit. He compares this expense with some commercial options in his writeup, which shows there are some cheaper and more powerful solutions. But while it may be cheaper to buy, we understand that strong urge to roll your own.

We’ve written about many Pi cluster projects in the past, including this one which contains a whopping 750 Raspberry Pis. Have you ever used a colocation service, and if so, did you use a DIY or an off-the-shelf server?

Astronomical Clock Uses Your Spare Clock Motors

We’ll admit we are suckers for clock projects, and the more unusual, the better. We liked the look of [Peter Balch’s] astronomical clock, especially since it was handcrafted and was a relatively simple mechanism. [Peter] admits that it looks like an astronomical clock, but it isn’t the same as a complex instrument from medieval times. Instead, it uses several standard clock motors modified.

We didn’t quite follow some of the explanations for the rotation of the different elements, but the animated GIF cleared it all up. The inner and outer discs are geared at a 6:5 ratio. It takes 2 hours for the inner disc to make one rotation, meaning that every 12 hours the two discs will be back to where they began relative to one another.

Modifying the motors is fine work, requiring a good bit of disassembly and some glue. The electronics that make it tick are quite interesting. To drive the motors, a very specific pulse train is needed, but you also want to conserve battery as much as possible. A simple oscillator with a hex inverter drew more power than desired and an Arduino, even more so. A PIC12F629, though, could sleep a lot and do the job for a very low current consumption. The final clock should run a year on two AA cells.

Give Your Smart Home A Green Thumb With MQTT

We have all been stuck inside for too long, and maybe that’s why we have recently seen a number of projects attempting to help humans take better care of their housemates from Kingdom Plantae. To survive, plants need nutrients, light, and water. That last one seems tricky to get right; not too dry and not drowning them either, so [rbaron’s] green solder-masked w-parasite wireless soil monitor turns this responsibility over to your existing home automation system.

w-parasite MQTT diagram

Like this low-power soil sensor project and the custom controller for six soil sensors, [rbaron’s] w-parasite uses a “parasitic capacitive” moisture sensor to determine if it’s time to water plants. This means that unlike resistive soil moisture sensors, here the copper traces are protected from corrosion by the solder mask. For those wondering how they work, [rbaron]’s Twitter thread has a great explanation.

The “w” in the name is for WiFi as the built-in ESP-32 module then takes the moisture reading and sends an update wirelessly via MQTT. Depending on the IQ of your smart-home setup, you could log the data, route an alert to a cellphone, light up a smart-bulb, or even switch on an irrigation system.

w-parasite circuit board in a potted plant[rbaron] has shared a string of wireless hacks, controlling the A/C over Slack and a BLE Fitness Tracker that inspired more soldering than jogging. We like how streamlined this solution is, with the sensor, ESP-32 module, and battery all in a compact single board design. Are you asking yourself, “but how is a power-hungry ESP-32 going to last longer than it takes for my geraniums to dry out?” [rbaron] is using deep sleep that only consumes 15uA between very quick 500ms check-ins. The rechargeable LIR2450 Li-Ion coin cell shown here can transmit a reading every half hour for 90 days. If you need something that lasts longer than that, use [rbaron]’s handy spreadsheet to choose larger batteries that last a whole year. Though, let’s hope we don’t have to spend another whole year inside with our plant friends.

We may never know why the weeds in the cracks of city streets do better than our houseplants, but hopefully, we can keep our green roommates alive (slightly longer) with a little digital nudge.

 

ESP32 Soil Monitors Tap Into Ultra-Low Power Mode

Soil moisture sensors are cheap and easy to interface with, to the point that combining one with an Arduino and blinking an LED when your potted plant is feeling a bit parched is a common beginners project. But what about on the long term? Outside of a simple proof of concept, what would it take to actually read the data from these sensors over the course of weeks or months?

That’s precisely the question [derflob] recently had to answer. The goal was to build a device that could poll multiple soil sensors and push the data wirelessly into Home Assistant. But since it would be outside on the balcony, it needed to run exclusively on battery power. Luckily his chosen platform, the ESP32, has some phenomenal power saving features. You just need to know how to use them. Continue reading “ESP32 Soil Monitors Tap Into Ultra-Low Power Mode”

Color E-Ink Display Photo Frame Pranks [Mom]

As a general rule, it’s not nice to prank your mother. Moms have a way of exacting subtle revenge, generally in the form of guilt. That’s not to say it might not be worth the effort, especially when the prank is actually wrapped in a nice gesture, like this ever-changing e-paper family photo frame.

The idea the [CNLohr] had was made possible by a new generation of multicolor e-paper displays by Waveshare. The display [Charles] chose was a generous 5.65″ unit with a total of seven colors. A little hacking revealed an eighth color was possible, adding a little more depth to the images. The pictures need a little pre-processing first, of course — dithering to accommodate the limited palette — but look surprisingly good on the display. They have a sort of stylized look, as if they were printed on a textured paper with muted inks.

The prank idea was simple — present [Mrs. Lohr] with a cherished family photo to display, only to find out that it had changed to another photo overnight. The gaslighting attempt required a bit more hacking, including some neat tricks to keep the power consumption very low. It was also a bit of a squeeze to get it into a frame that was slim enough not to arouse suspicion. The video below details some of the challenges involved in this build.

In the end, [Mom] wasn’t tricked, but she still seemed pleased with the final product. These displays seem like they could be a lot of fun — perhaps a version of the very-slow-motion player but for color movies would be doable.

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Game Boy Plays Forever

For those of us old enough to experience it first hand, the original Game Boy was pretty incredible, but did have one major downside: battery consumption. In the 90s rechargeable batteries weren’t common, which led to most of us playing our handhelds beside power outlets. Some modern takes on the classic Game Boy address these concerns with modern hardware, but this group from the Delft University of Technology and Northwestern has created a Game Boy clone that doesn’t need any batteries at all, even though it can play games indefinitely.

This build was a proof-of-concept for something called “intermittent computing” which allows a computer to remain in a state of processing limbo until it gets enough energy to perform the next computation. The Game Boy clone, fully compatible with the original Game Boy hardware, is equipped with many tiny solar panels which can harvest energy and is able to halt itself and store its state in nonvolatile memory if it detects that there isn’t enough energy available to continue. This means that Super Mario Land isn’t exactly playable, but other games that aren’t as action-packed can be enjoyed with very little impact in gameplay.

The researchers note that it’ll be a long time before their energy-aware platform becomes commonplace in devices and replaces batteries, but they do think that internet-connected devices that don’t need to be constantly running or powered up would be a good start. There are already some low-powered options available that can keep their displays active when everything else is off, so hopefully we will see even more energy-efficient options in the near future.

Thanks to [Sascho] for the tip!

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