Switches seem to be the simplest of electrical components – just two pieces of metal that can be positioned to either touch each other or not. As such it would seem that it shouldn’t matter whether a switch is used for AC or DC. While that’s an easy and understandable assumption, it can also be a dangerous one, as this demo of AC and DC switching dramatically reveals.
Using a very simple test setup, consisting of an electric heater for a load, a variac to control the voltage, and a homemade switch, [John Ward] walks us through the details of what happens when those contacts get together. With low-voltage AC, the switch contacts exhibit very little arcing, and even with the voltage cranked up all the way, little more than a brief spark can be seen on either make or break. Then [John] built a simple DC supply with a big rectifier and a couple of capacitors to smooth things out and went through the same tests. Even at a low DC voltage, the arc across the switch contacts was dramatic, particularly upon break. With the voltage cranked up to the full 240-volts of the UK mains, [John]’s switch was essentially a miniature arc welder, with predictable results as the plastic holding the contacts melted. Don your welding helmet and check out the video below.
As dramatic as the demo is, it doesn’t mean we won’t ever be seeing DC in the home. It just means that a little extra engineering is needed to make sure that all the components are up to snuff.
A certain subset of readers will remember a time when common knowledge held that sitting too close to the TV put you in mortal peril. We were warned to stay at least six feet back to avoid the X-rays supposedly pouring forth from the screen. Nobody but our moms believed it, so there we sat, transfixed and mere inches from the Radiation King, working on our tans as we caught up on the latest cartoons. We all grew up mostly OK, so it must have been a hoax.
Or was it? It turns out that getting X-rays from vacuum tubes is possible, at least if this barbecue lighter turned X-ray machine is legit. [GH] built it after playing with some 6J1 rectifier tubes and a 20-kV power supply yanked from an old TV, specifically to generate X-rays. It turned out that applying current between the filament and the plate made a Geiger counter click, so to simplify the build, the big power supply was replaced with the piezoelectric guts from a lighter. That worked too, but not for long — the tube was acting as a capacitor, storing up charge each time the trigger on the lighter was pulled, eventually discharging through and destroying the crystal. A high-voltage diode from a microwave oven in series with the crystal as a snubber fixed the problem, and now X-rays are as easy as lighting a grill.
Even if you aren’t a tube aficionado, you can’t help but be mesmerized by the blue glow inside a mercury vapor rectifier when it operates. It looks less like early 20th century tech and more like something that belongs on a Star Trek set. [Uniservo] acquired an 866 rectifier that was interesting due to the markings, which he explains in detail in the video below. Most people though will probably want to skip to closer to its end to see that distinctive blue glow. The exact hue depends on the mercury vapor pressure and usually contains a fair amount of ultraviolet light.
These tubes have an interesting history dating back to 1901, the year [Peter Cooper Hewitt] developed a mercury vapor light which was much more efficient than conventional bulbs. They had two main problems, they required some special process to get the mercury inside to vaporize when you turned them on, but worse still, the light was blue-green which isn’t really appropriate for home and office lighting. In 1902 though, [Hewitt] realized the tube would act as a rectifier. Electrons could readily flow out of the mercury vapor that was the cathode, while the carbon anodes didn’t give up electrons as readily. This was important because up until then, there wasn’t an easy way to convert AC to DC. The usual method was to use an AC motor coupled to a DC generator or a similar mechanical arrangement known as a rotary converter.
In later decades the mercury vapor lamp would wind up with a phosphor coating that converted the ultraviolet light to cool white light and became the fluorescent bulb, so while the rectifier mostly gave way to more efficient methods, [Hewitt’s] bulb has been in use for many years.
If you need a high voltage, a voltage multiplier is one of the easiest ways to obtain it. A voltage multiplier is a specialized type of rectifier circuit that converts an AC voltage to a higher DC voltage. Invented by Heinrich Greinacher in 1919, they were used in the design of a particle accelerator that performed the first artificial nuclear disintegration, so you know they mean business.
Theoretically the output of the multiplier is an integer times the AC peak input voltage, and while they can work with any input voltage, the principal use for voltage multipliers is when very high voltages, in the order of tens of thousands or even millions of volts, are needed. They have the advantage of being relatively easy to build, and are cheaper than an equivalent high voltage transformer of the same output rating. If you need sparks for your mad science, perhaps a voltage multiplier can provide them for you.
How many integrated circuits do you need to build up a power supply that’ll convert mains AC into a stable DC voltage? Would you believe, none? We just watched this video by [The Current Source] (embedded below), where he builds exactly that. If you’re in the mood for a very well done review of diode bridges as well as half- and full-wave rectifiers, you should check it out.
First off, [TCS] goes through the basics of rectification, and demonstrates very nicely on the oscilloscope how increasing capacitance on the output smooths out the ripple. (Hint: more is better.) And then it’s off to build. The end result is a very simple unregulated power supply — just a diode bridge with some capacitors on the output — but by using really big capacitors he gets down into the few-millivolt range for ripple into a constant load.
The output voltage of this circuit will depend on the average current drawn, but for basically static loads this circuit should work well enough, and the simplicity of just tossing gigantic capacitors at the problem is alluring. (We would toss in a linear regulator somewhere.)
Quibbling over circuit designs isn’t why you’re watching this video, though. It’s because you want to learn something. Check out the rest of his videos as well. [TCS] has only been at it a little while, but it looks like this is going to be a channel to watch.
We’ve all been there – hiking in the woods with a dead phone battery. No GPS, no way to Tweet that selfie from some hill with a great vista. It’s a disaster! But not if you have access to a little trailside junk and have the ingenuity to build this field-expedient water wheel generator to recharge your phone.
OK, it’s a stretch to imagine finding all the things needed for [Thomas Kim]’s hack. We’re only guessing at the BOM – the video below has little commentary, so what you see is what you get – but it looks like a garbage can at the trailhead might at least yield the materials needed to build the turbine. Water bottle bottoms and a couple of plastic picnic plates form the Pelton-like impeller, the frame looks like an old drying rack, and the axle appears to be a campfire skewer. But you might have a hard time finding the electrical side of the build, which consists of a stepper motor, a rectifier, and an electrolytic cap. Then again, you could get lucky and find a cast-off printer by the side of the road. No matter how he got the materials, it’s pretty cool to see an iPhone recharging next to a babbling brook in the woods.
The history of the diode is a fun one as it’s rife with accidental discoveries, sometimes having to wait decades for a use for what was found. Two examples of that are our first two topics: thermionic emission and semiconductor diodes. So let’s dive in.
Vacuum Tubes/Thermionic Diodes
Our first accidental discovery was of thermionic emission, which many years later lead to the vacuum tube. Thermionic emission is basically heating a metal, or a coated metal, causing the emission of electrons from its surface.
In 1873 Frederick Guthrie had charged his electroscope positively and then brought a piece of white-hot metal near the electroscope’s terminal. The white-hot metal emitted electrons to the terminal, which of course neutralized the electroscope’s positive charge, causing the leafs to come together. A negatively charged electroscope can’t be discharged this way though, since the hot metal emits electrons only, i.e. negative charge. Thus the direction of electron flow was one-way and the earliest diode was born.
Thomas Edison independently discovered this effect in 1880 when trying to work out why the carbon-filaments in his light bulbs were often burning out at their positive-connected ends. In exploring the problem, he created a special evacuated bulb wherein he had a piece of metal connected to the positive end of the circuit and held near the filament. He found that an invisible current flowed from the filament to the metal. For this reason, thermionic emission is sometimes referred to as the Edison effect.
But it took until 1904 for the first practical use of the effect to appear. John Ambrose Fleming had actually consulted for the Edison Electric Light Company from 1881-1891 but was now working for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company. In 1901 the company demonstrated the first radio transmission across the Atlantic, the letter “S” in the form or three dots in Morse code. But there was so much difficulty in telling the received signal apart from the background noise, that the result was disputed (and still is). This made Fleming realize that a more sensitive detector than the coherer they’d been using was needed. And so in 1904 he tried an Edison effect bulb. It worked well, rectifying the high frequency oscillations and passing the signals on to a galvanometer. He filed for a patent and the Fleming valve, the two element vacuum tube or thermionic diode, came into being, heralding decades of technological developments in many subsequent types of vacuum tubes.
Vacuum tubes began to be replaced in power supplies in the 1940s by selenium diodes and in the 1960s by semiconductor diodes but are still used today in high power applications. There’s also been a resurgence in their use by audiophiles and recording studios. But that’s only the start of our history.