A close-up view of surface-mount components on a circuit board

Smaller Is Sometimes Better: Why Electronic Components Are So Tiny

Perhaps the second most famous law in electronics after Ohm’s law is Moore’s law: the number of transistors that can be made on an integrated circuit doubles every two years or so. Since the physical size of chips remains roughly the same, this implies that the individual transistors become smaller over time. We’ve come to expect new generations of chips with a smaller feature size to come along at a regular pace, but what exactly is the point of making things smaller? And does smaller always mean better?

Smaller Size Means Better Performance

Over the past century, electronic engineering has improved massively. In the 1920s, a state-of-the-art AM radio contained several vacuum tubes, a few enormous inductors, capacitors and resistors, several dozen meters of wire to act as an antenna, and a big bank of batteries to power the whole thing. Today, you can listen to a dozen music streaming services on a device that fits in your pocket and can do a gazillion more things. But miniaturization is not just done for ease of carrying: it is absolutely necessary to achieve the performance we’ve come to expect of our devices today. Continue reading “Smaller Is Sometimes Better: Why Electronic Components Are So Tiny”

Snails, Sensors, And Smart Dust: The Michigan Micro Mote

If you want to track a snail, you need a tiny instrumentation package. How do you create an entire data acquisition system, including sensors, memory, data processing and a power supply, small enough to fit onto a snail’s shell?

Throughout history, humans have upset many ecosystems around the world by introducing invasive species. Australia’s rabbits are a famous example, but perhaps less well-known are the Giant African land snails (Lissachatina fulica) that were introduced to South Pacific islands in the mid-20th century. Originally intended as a food source (escargot africain, anyone?), they quickly turned out to be horrible pests, devouring local plants and agricultural crops alike.

Not to be deterred, biologists introduced another snail, hoping to kill off the African ones: the Rosy Wolfsnail (Euglandina rosea), native to the Southeastern United States. This predatory snail did not show great interest in the African intruders however, and instead went on to decimate the indigenous snail population, driving dozens of local species into extinction.

A snail with a solar sensor attached to its shell
A Rosy Wolfsnail carrying a light sensing Micro Mote on its back. Source: Cindy S. Bick et al., 2021

One that managed to survive the onslaught is a small white snail called Partula hyalina. Confined to the edges of the tropical forests of Tahiti, biologists hypothesized that it was able to avoid the predators by hiding in sunny places which were too bright for E. rosea. The milky-white shells of P. hyalina supposedly protected them from overheating by reflecting more sunlight than the wolf snails’ orange-brown ones.

This sounds reasonable, but biologists need proof. So a team from the University of Michigan set up an experiment to measure the amount of solar radiation experienced by both snail types. They attached tiny light sensors to the wolf snails’ shells and then released them again. The sensors measured the amount of sunlight seen by the animals and logged this information during a full day. The snails were then caught again and the data retrieved, and the results proved the original hypothesis.

So much for science, but exactly how did they pull this off? Continue reading “Snails, Sensors, And Smart Dust: The Michigan Micro Mote”

Arduboy Gets Even Smaller With New Nano Edition

One of the selling points of the Arduboy is how slim [Kevin Bates] was able to get the Arduino-compatible game system, which is perhaps less surprising when you realize that it originally started out as a design for an electronic business card. But compared to the recently unveiled Nano version, it might as well be the old school “brick” Game Boy.

Now to be clear, [Kevin] isn’t looking to put these into official production. Though it does sound like the bare PCBs might be going up for sale in the near future. This was simply an experiment to see how far he could shrink the core Arduboy hardware while still keeping it not only playable but also code-compatible with the full-size version. While “playable” might be a tad subjective in this case, the video after the break clearly demonstrates that it’s fully functional.

Inside the 3D printed case is the same ATmega32U4 that powers the Arduboy, a 64×32 0.49″ OLED display, and a tiny 25 mAh pouch battery. There’s even a miniature piezo speaker for the bleeps and bloops. All of the pinouts have remained the same so existing code can be moved right over, though the screen is now connected over I2C. [Kevin] has released the schematics for the board in keeping with the general open nature of the Arduboy project, though for now he’s decided to hold onto the board files until it’s clear whether or not there’s a commercial future for the Nano.

We’ve seen attempts to shrink the Arduboy down before, most notably down to the point it could fit inside of a Dreamcast Visual Memory Unit, but the Nano certainly raises (or is that lowers?) the bar considerably.

Continue reading “Arduboy Gets Even Smaller With New Nano Edition”

MEMS: The Biggest Word In Small

What’s tiny and on track to be worth $22 billion dollars by 2018? MEMS (Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems). That’s a catch-all phrase for microscopic devices that have moving parts. Usually, the component sizes range from 0.1 mm to 0.001 mm, which is tiny, indeed. There are some researchers working with even smaller components, sometimes referenced as NEMS (Nano Electrical Mechanical Systems).

Resonant Cantilever by [Pcflet01], CC BY-SA 3.0
MEMS have a wide range of applications including ink jet printers, accelerometers, gyroscopes, microphones, pressure sensors, displays, and more. Many of the sensors in a typical cell phone would not be possible without MEMS. There are many ways that MEMS devices are built, but just to get a flavor, consider the cantilever (see right), one of the most common MEMS constructions.

Continue reading “MEMS: The Biggest Word In Small”

Tiny LED Earrings Are A Miniaturization Tour De Force

Light up jewelry is nothing new – we see wearables all the time here. But home brew, self-contained, programmable LED earrings that are barely larger than the watch batteries which power them? That’s something worth looking into.

assembly5Settle back and watch [mitxela]’s miniature wizardry in the video below, but be forewarned: it runs 36 minutes. Most of the video is necessarily shot through a microscope where giant fingers come perilously close to soldering iron and razor blade.

The heart of the project is an ATtiny9, a six-legged flea of a chip. The flexible PCB is fabricated from Pyralux, which is essentially copper-clad Kapton tape. [Mitxela] etched the board after removing spray-paint resist with a laser engraver – an interesting process in its own right.

After some ridiculously tedious soldering, the whole circuit wraps around a CR927 battery and goes into a custom aluminum and polypropylene case, which required some delicate turning. Hung from off-the-shelf ear hooks, the 12 multiplexed LEDs flash fetchingly and are sure to attract attention, especially of those who know Morse.

This isn’t exactly [mitxela]’s first tiny rodeo, of course. We’ve featured his work many times, including a Morse code USB keyboardthe world’s smallest MIDI synthesizer, and the world’s smallest MIDI synthesizer again.

Continue reading “Tiny LED Earrings Are A Miniaturization Tour De Force”