Op-Amp Challenge: A Logic-Free BCD

Of digital electronics, a wise man once said that “Every idiot can count to one.” Truer words have rarely been spoken, because at the end of the day, every digital circuit is really just an analog circuit with the interesting bits abstracted away. And to celebrate that way of looking at things, we’re pleased to present this BCD to seven-segment converter that uses no logic chips.

With cheap and easily available chips that perform this exact job, it might seem a little loopy to throw 20 LM324 op-amps at the job. But as [gschmidt958] explains, this is strictly for the challenge, plus it made a nice entry in the recently concluded Op-Amp Challenge contest. His work began in simulation, exploring op-amp versions of the basic logic gates — NAND, AND, OR, and NOT — all of which rely on using the LM324s as comparators. There were real-world curveballs, of course, not least of which was running out of the 10k resistors used for input averaging. Another plot twist was running out of time to order a PCB, which required designing one using MS Paint and etching it at home.

The demo video below shows the circuit at work, taking the BCD output of a 74HC393 counter — clocked by a 555, naturally — and driving a seven-segment LED.  It’s honestly a lot of work for such a simple task, but there’s something satisfying about the whole project. We think [Widlar] would be proud.

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Op-Amp Challenge: Measuring PH, No Code Required

When you see a project with a digital display these days, you’ll be forgiven for assuming that there’s some kind of microcontroller behind the scenes. And while that’s often the easiest way to get a project from idea to completion, it’s rarely the most interesting way.

This digital pH meter is a great example of that “no-code” design philosophy. According to [chris], the main use for this meter will be to measure soil pH in his garden, and the reason for eschewing a microcontroller was more or less for the challenge. And quite a challenge it was. Understanding the concept of pH isn’t always easy, and many a budding chemist has fallen victim to its perils. Actually measuring pH isn’t much easier, with the need to account for a lot of variables while measuring small voltages. Adding to the challenge was the fact that pretty much every skill on display here — from using KiCad to SMD soldering — was the first time [chris] had tackled them.

To amplify the voltage from the off-the-shelf pH probe, [chris] chose an LMV358A, a high-impedance FET-input version of the venerable LM358 op-amp, so as not to load down the probe. A negative temperature coefficient (NTC) resistor in the feedback path provides temperature compensation. He also designed a split power supply to provide positive and negative rails from a single 9-volt battery. The 3.5-digit LCD display is driven by an ICL7106 integrated A/D converter and BCD driver chip. Everything went into a nice-looking plastic enclosure that’s very suitable for a portable instrument.

As of this writing, the Op-Amp Challenge has officially wrapped, and there’s a slew of last-minute entries we need to go through. Check out the competition and stay tuned to find out who the judges pick for op-amp design glory!

Op-Amp Challenge: MOSFETs Make This Discrete Op Amp Tick

When it comes to our analog designs, op-amps tend to be just another jellybean part. We tend to spec whatever does the job, and don’t give much of a thought as to the internals. And while it doesn’t make much sense to roll your own op-amp out of discrete components, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to be learned from doing just that.

While we’re more accustomed to seeing [Mitsuru Yamada]’s digital projects, he’s no stranger to the analog world. In fact, this project is a follow-on to his previous bipolar transistor op-amp, which we featured back in 2021. This design features MOSFETs rather than BJTs, but retains the same basic five-transistor topology as the previous work, with a differential pair input stage, a gain stage, and a buffer stage. Even the construction of the module is similar, using his trademark perfboard and ultra-tidy wiring.

Also new is a flexible evaluation unit for these discrete op-amp modules. This very sturdy-looking circuit provides an easy way to configure the op-amp for testing in inverting, non-inverting, and transimpedance mode, selecting from a range of feedback resistors, and even provides a photodiode input. The video below shows the eval unit in action with the CMOS module, as well as highlights the excellent construction [Mitsuru Yamada] is known for.

Looking for some digital goodness? Check out the PERSEUS-8, a 6502 machine we wish had been a real product back in the day.

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Op-Amp Challenge: A Low Noise Amplifier For Those Truly Low Noise Measurements

When something is described as “Low Noise”, it is by the nature of the language a relative phrase. The higest quality magnetic tape is low noise compared to its cheaper sibling for example, but still has noise many would consider unacceptable. In instrumentation however, “Low Noise” has to really mean just that, with a range of specialist techniques to produce circuitry with a truly low noise level for the most demanding of signal applications. As an example [Floydfish] has created a low noise instrumentation amplifier that should serve as a learning exercise for anyone interested in pushing low noise circuitry to the limit.

Anyone who can dredge the hazy recesses of their mind for barely-remembered electronics lectures will know that the overall noise figure of a system is dictated by that of its first component. Thus perhaps the most interesting part of the schematic is at the input, where a row of low-noise op-amps are presented in parallel. We have to admit having to look this one up, to find that it’s a technique whereby the signal outputs of each chip are the same and thus sum, while the noise output of each is different and thus the summed noise output is proportionally lower. This stage is then followed by a buffer and a set of filters for different output frequency ranges.

Our op-amp competition of which this is a part is certainly delivering the goods when it comes to the amny techniques with which these versatile parts can be used. Few of us may need to make such a low noise amplifier, but at least now we’ve learned how.

Op-Amp Challenge: Light Up Breadboard Shows Us The Signals

Most Hackaday readers will no doubt at some point used a solderless breadboard for prototyping. They do the job, but sometimes their layout can be inflexible and keeping track of signals can be a pain. There’s a neat idea from [rasmusviil0] which might go some way to making the humble breadboard easier to use, it’s a breadboard in which each line is coupled via an op-amp buffer to an LED. In this way it can be seen at a glance some indication of the DC voltage present.

It’s an idea reminiscent of those simple logic probes which were popular years ago, but its implementation is not entirely easy. Each circuit is simple enough, but to replicate it across all the lines in a breadboard makes for a huge amount of quad op-amp chips stuffed onto one piece of stripboard as well as a veritable forest of wires beneath the board.

The effect is of a breadboard crossed with a set of blinkenlights, and we could see that for simple digital circuits it could have some utility if not so much for higher frequency or analogue signals. Certainly it’s an experiment worth doing, and indeed it’s not the first tricked out breadboard we’ve seen.

Op-Amp Challenge: Get More From A Single Wire With An Analogue Adder

It’s been a running battle in some quarters for years, whether analog sensor processing is better than digital. Proponents of digital are sometimes driven by lack of familiarity with analog circuitry, while analog die-hards point to delays and software crashes in microcontrollers. We’d probably toe the line that a mixture of the two skills is best, but [paul] has gone full-on for the analog side with his position and limit sensor for a remote telescope. The ‘scope had only one control wire carrying a digital signal, so how was he to get extra information down it? The solution was to overlay a DC voltage, and use a summing network composed of a series of op-amps to encode position and limit data as voltage.

In operation, the circuit is a straightforward DC summing amplifier of the type that op-amps were designed for and at which they excel. We’re not so sure it needs the high-precision resistors and the choice of op-amps seems the wrong way round with the AD8532’s high current output being better suited to driving the line than straightforward summing, but we can see it does the job. If you’re after a demonstration of a DC summing amplifier using an op-amp, here’s your project. Meanwhile if you’re curious about an op-amp inside the black box, take a look at one of the simplest integrated circuit op-amps ever made.

Op-Amp Challenge: Reliable Peak Power Measurement

As part of our Op-Amp Challenge we’re seeing a wide diversity of entries showcasing the seemingly endless capabilities of these extremely versatile parts. Another one comes from [Joseph Thomas], who when faced with the need to measure the properties of an automotive spark plug, came up with a precision peak detector to hold on to the energy level used when firing it.

It starts with an op-amp buffer feeding a diode and capacitor. The capacitor is charged through the diode and holds the level, which can be read through another op-amp. Finally there’s an opto-isolated transistor to discharge the capacitor before a fresh reading is taken.

It’s a simple enough circuit but a very effective one. The op-amps used are bit old-school FET devices, but aside from the high impedance input their performance is hardly critical. Yet another op-amp circuit to hold in reserve should you ever need to perform this task.