Arduino Nitrox Analyzer for the Submarine Hacker

For Hackaday readers who don’t spend their free time underwater, nitrox is a blend of nitrogen and oxygen that’s popular with scuba divers. Compared to atmospheric air, nitrox has a higher concentration of oxygen; which not only allows divers to spend more time underwater but also reduces the risk of decompression sickness. Of course when fiddling with the ratio of gases you breathe there’s a not inconsequential risk of dying, so nitrox diving requires special training and equipment to make sure the gas mixture is correct.

Divers can verify the ratio of oxygen to nitrogen in their nitrox tanks with a portable analyzer, though as you might expect, they aren’t exactly cheap. But if you’re confident in your own hacking skills, [Eunjae Im] might have the solution for divers looking to save some cash. He’s come up with an Arduino based nitrox analyzer that can be built for considerably less than the cost of a commercial unit.

Now before you get the torches lit up, we should be clear: ultimately the accuracy, and therefore safety, of this device depends on the quality of the oxygen sensor used. [Eunjae] isn’t suggesting you get a bottom of the barrel sensor for this build, and in fact links to a replacement sensor that’s intended for commercial nitrox analyzers as a way to verify the unit is up to the task. The downside is that the sensor alone runs $80. If you want to go with something cheaper, you do so at your own risk.

With a suitable sensor in hand, the project really boils down to building up an interface and enclosure for it. [Eunjae] is using an Arduino Nano, a 128×64 OLED screen, and a battery inside of a rugged waterproof case. He also added an ADS1115 16 Bit DAC between the oxygen sensor and the Arduino for fast and accurate readings over I2C. With the hardware assembled, calibrating the device is as simple as taking it outside and making sure you get an oxygen reading of 20.9% (the atmospheric normal).

While [Eunjae] is happy with his analyzer on the whole, he does see a few areas which could be improved in future revisions. The case is bulky and rather unattractive, something that could be addressed with a custom 3D printed case (though waterproofing it might be an issue). He also says the only reason he used a 9V alkaline battery was because he had it on hand, a small rechargeable battery pack would be a much more elegant solution.

We’ll go out on a limb and say that most Hackaday readers aren’t avid scuba divers. For better or for worse, we’re the sort of folks who stay in the shallow end of the pool. But when one of our ilk does dip below the waves, they really seem to go all out.

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Wideband Woes and the Junkbox Miata

As ever, I am fighting a marginally winning battle against my 1991 Mazda MX-5, and this is the story of how I came to install a wideband oxygen sensor in my Japanese thoroughbred. It came about as part of my ongoing project to build myself a viable racecar, and to figure out why my 1990s Japanese economy car engine runs more like a late 1970s Malaise-era boat anchor.

I’ve always considered myself unlucky. My taste for early 90s metal has meant I’ve never known the loving embrace of OBD-2 diagnostics, and I’ve had to make to do with whatever hokey system was implemented by manufacturers who were just starting to produce reliable fuel injection systems.

Narrowband oxygen sensor voltage output. The output is heavily dependent on sensor temperature and highly non-linear, making these sensors unsuitable for delivering a true AFR reading.

This generally involves putting in a wire jumper somewhere, attaching an LED, and watching it flash out the trouble codes. My Mazda was no exception, and after putting up with a car that was running rich enough to leave soot all over the rear bumper, I had to run the diagnostic.

It turned up three codes – one for the cam angle sensor, and two for the oxygen sensor. Now, a cam angle sensor (CAS) fault will normally prevent the car running at all, so it’s safe to assume that was an intermittent fault to keep an eye on.

The oxygen sensor, however, was clearly in need of attention. Its job is to allow the engine control unit (ECU) to monitor the fuel mixture in the exhaust, and make sure it’s not too rich or too lean. As my car was very obviously running too rich, and the diagnostic codes indicated an oxygen sensor failure, a repair was in order.

I priced up replacement sensors, and a new oxygen sensor could be had for under $100. However, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, as not all oxygen sensors are created equal. Cars in the 80s and 90s typically shipped from the OEM fitted with what’s called a narrowband oxygen sensor. These almost always consist of a zirconia dioxide cell that outputs a voltage depending on the difference in oxygen concentration between the exhaust gas and the free air. These sensors generally sit at 0.45 V when the fuel mixture is stoichiometric, but rapidly change to 0.1 V in a lean condition and 0.9 V in a rich condition. The response is highly non-linear, and changes greatly with respect to temperature, and thus is only good for telling the ECU if it’s rich or lean, but not by how much. ECUs with narrowband sensors tend to hunt a lot when running in closed loop O2 control – you’ll see an engine at idle hunt either side of the magical 14.7 stoichiometric air fuel ratio, never able to quite dial in on the correct number.

As I intend to switch to an aftermarket ECU in the future, I’ll need to tune the car. This involves making sure the air/fuel ratios (AFRs) are correct, and for that I need to be able to properly measure them. Just knowing whether you’re rich or lean isn’t enough, as often it’s desirable to run the engine intentionally rich or lean at certain engine loads. To get a true AFR reading requires fitting a wideband oxygen sensor. These are a little more complicated.

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