How Small Is Too Small?

Not a rhetorical question! This week we consider the most micro microcontroller: the HC32L110. It’s the new title holder of the smallest ARM Cortex M0+ part. But could you actually use it?

MCU is the black thing that’s smaller than the capacitor.

I remember way back, when I first learned to solder surface-mount components. It was fiddly at first, but nowadays I don’t use through-hole components unless someone’s twisting my arm. And I still do my soldering myself — down to 0603 really isn’t all that bad with an iron, and below that, there’s always the heat plate. My heat plate has also gotten me through the two times I’ve actually needed to put down a ball-grid-array part. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared, honestly.

So maybe it’s time for me to take the BGA plunge and design a board or two just to get more familiar with the tech. I probably won’t dive straight into the deep end, like the featured chip here with 0.35 mm ball pitch, but rather stick with something that the cheap PCB services can easily handle. My experience tells me that the best way to learn something is just to test it out.

Now, off to go part shopping in the middle of a chip crisis! Wish me luck.

555 Teardown Isn’t Just A Good Time, It’s To Die For

It seems only appropriate that hot on the heels of the conclusion of Hackaday’s 555 Timer Contest that [Ken Shirriff] posts a silicon die teardown of an early version of a hacker’s favorite chip, the 555.

A Microscopic View Of the 555 Die

Starting with a mystery chip from January 1973, [Eric Schlaepfer] painstakingly sanded down the package to reveal the die, which he deemed to be a 555 timer. Why didn’t they know it was a 555 timer to start? Because the package was not marked with “555” but rather some other marks that you can see in the blog post.

In addition to a great explanation of how the 555 works in general, [Ken] has taken a microscopic look at the 555 die itself. The schematic of a 555 is easily available, and [Ken] identifies not just sections of the die but individual components. He goes further yet by explaining how the PNP and NPN resistors are constructed in silicon. There’s also a nice and juicy bit of insight into the resistors in the IC, but we won’t spoil it here.

Be sure to show your love for the winners of the 555 contest, or at the very least check out the project that took the stop spot: a giant sized 555 that you don’t need a microscope to see inside of.

This DIY Microscope Design Is All Wet

[Robert Murray-Smith] wanted to recreate how some ancient microscopes worked: with a drop of water as a lens. The idea is that the meniscus of a drop of water will work as a lens. This works because of surface tension and by controlling the attraction of the water to the surface,  you can actually form convex and concave surfaces.

What’s interesting is that this doesn’t require a lot of equipment. Some plastic, a hole punch, some pens, a flashlight, and some other odds and ends. Then it’s just a matter of grabbing some puddle water and examining the critters inside. Of course, with a single lens, these are more properly magnifying glasses. Some claim that people in China built such instruments thousands of years ago. [Robert] mentions [Antonie van Leeuwenhoek] as the father of the microscope, although he wasn’t the first to build such a device. He did create amazing glass lenses using a method he kept secret but has been worked out using modern science.

It is hard to see much through the camera, but it clearly was magnifying. Not a bad little rainy day kid’s project since you probably have everything you need on hand. We wonder what other readily-available things you could image with a device like this.

Of course, if you want to build a real microscope, the designs are out there. You can even make one using — mostly — LEGO.

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Ken Shirriff Breaks Open The Yamaha DX7

For better or worse, this synthesizer was king in the 1980s music scene. Sure, there had been synthesizers before, but none acheived the sudden popularity of Yamaha’s DX7. “Take on Me?” “Highway to the Dangerzone”?  That harmonica solo in “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”  All DX7. This synth was everywhere in pop music at the time, and now we can all get some insight from taking a look at this de-capped chip from [Ken Shirriff].

To be clear, by “look” that’s exactly what we mean in this case, as [Ken] is reverse-engineering the YM21280 — the waveform generator of the DX7 — from photos. He took around 100 photos of the de-capped chip with a microscope, composited them, and then analyzed them painstakingly. The detail in his report is remarkable as he is able to show individual logic gates thanks to his powerful microscope. From there he can show exactly how the chip works down to each individual adder and array of memory.

[Ken]’s hope is that this work improves the understanding of the Yamaha DX7 chips enough to build more accurate emulators. Yamaha stopped producing the synthesizer in 1989 but its ubiquity makes it a popular, if niche, platform for music even today. Of course you don’t need a synthesizer to make excellent music. The next pop culture trend, grunge, essentially was a rebellion to the 80s explosion of synths and neon colors and we’ve seen some unique ways of exploring this era of music as well.

Thanks to [Folkert] for the tip!

Highly Configurable Open Source Microscope Cooked Up In FreeCAD

What do you get when you cross a day job as a Medical Histopathologist with an interest in 3D printing and programming? You get a fully-baked Open Source microscope, specifically the Portable Upgradeable Modular Affordable (or PUMA), that’s what. And this is no toy microscope. By combining a sprinkle of off-the-shelf electronics available from pretty much anywhere, a pound or two of filament, and a dash of high quality optical parts, PUMA cooks up quite possibly one of the best open source microscopy experiences we’ve ever tasted.

GitHub user [TadPath] works as a medical pathologist and clearly knows a thing or two about what makes a great instrument, so it is a genuine joy for us to see this tasty project laid out in such a complete fashion. Many a time we’ve looked into an high-profile project, only to find a pile of STL files and some hard to source special parts. But not here. This is deliberately designed to be buildable by practically anyone with access to a 3D printer and an eBay account.

The project is not currently certified for medical diagnostics use, but that is likely only a matter of money and time. The value for education and research (especially in developing nations) cannot really be overstated.

A small selection of the fixed and active aperture choices

The modularity allows a wide range of configurations from simple ambient light illumination, with a single objective, great for using out in the field without electricity, right up to a trinocular setup with TFT-based spatial light modulator enabling advanced methods such as Schlieren phase contrast (which allows visualisation of fluid flow inside a live cell, for example) and a heads-up display for making measurements from the sample. Add into the mix that PUMA is specifically designed to be quickly and easily broken down in the field, that helps busy researchers on the go, out in the sticks.

The GitHub repo has all the details you could need to build your own configuration and appropriate add-ons, everything from CAD files (FreeCAD source, so you can remix it to your heart’s content) and a detailed Bill-of-Materials for sourcing parts.

We covered fluorescence microscopy before, as well as many many other microscope related stories over the years, because quite simply, microscopes are a very important topic. Heck, this humble scribe has a binocular and a trinocular microscope on the bench next to him, and doesn’t even consider that unusual. If you’re hungry for an easily hackable, extendable and cost-effective scope, then this may be just the dish you were looking for.

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Lego Microscope Aims To Discover Future Scientists

When it comes to inspiring a lifelong appreciation of science, few experiences are as powerful as that first glimpse of the world swimming in a drop of pond water as seen through a decent microscope. But sadly, access to a microscope is hardly universal, denying that life-changing view of the world to far too many people.

There have been plenty of attempts to fix this problem before, but we’re intrigued to see Legos used to build a usable microscope, primarily for STEM outreach. It’s the subject of a scholarly paper (preprint) by [Bart E. Vos], [Emil Betz Blesa], and [Timo Betz]. The build almost exclusively uses Lego parts — pretty common ones at that — and there’s a complete list of the parts needed, which can either be sourced from online suppliers, who will kit up the parts for you, or by digging through the old Lego bin. Even the illuminator is a stock part, although you’ll likely want to replace the orange LED buried within with a white one. The only major non-Lego parts are the lenses, which can either be sourced online or, for the high-power objective, pulled from an old iPhone camera. The really slick part is the build instructions (PDF), which are formatted exactly like the manual from any Lego kit, making the build process easily accessible to anyone who has built Lego before.

As for results, they’re really not bad. Images of typical samples, like salt crystal, red onion cells, and water fleas are remarkably clear and detailed. It might no be a lab-grade Lego microscope, but it looks like it’s more than up to its intended use.

Thanks for the heads up on this, [Jef].

AD409 Microscope Review

It wasn’t that long ago that if you had an optical microscope in your electronics shop, you had a very well-supplied shop indeed. Today, though, a microscope is almost a necessity since parts have shrunk to flyspeck-size. [Maker Mashup] recently picked up an AD409 and posted a video review of the device that you can see below.

The microscope in question has a 10-inch screen so it is a step up from the usual cheap microscope we’ve seen on a lot of benches. Of course, that size comes at a price. The going rate for a new on is about $400.

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