Here’s a fun exercise: take a list of the 20th century’s inventions and innovations in electronics, communications, and computing. Make sure you include everything, especially the stuff we take for granted. Now, cross off everything that can’t trace its roots back to the AT&T Corporation’s research arm, the Bell Laboratories. We’d wager heavily that the list would still contain almost everything that built the electronics age: microwave communications, data networks, cellular telephone, solar cells, Unix, and, of course, the transistor.
But is that last one really true? We all know the story of Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley, the brilliant team laboring through a blizzard in 1947 to breathe life into a scrap of germanium and wires, finally unleashing the transistor upon the world for Christmas, a gift to usher us into the age of solid state electronics. It’s not so simple, though. The quest for a replacement for the vacuum tube for switching and amplification goes back to the lab of Julius Lilienfeld, the man who conceived the first field-effect transistor in the mid-1920s.
The more things change, the more things stay the same. Early electronic devices used a spark gap. These have been almost completely replaced with tubes and then semiconductor devices such as transistors. However, transistors will soon reach a theoretical limit on how small they can be which is causing researchers to find the next thing. If the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology has its way, we’ll go back to something that has more in common with a spark gap than a conventional transistor. You can find the source paper on the Nano Papers website although the text is behind a paywall.
The transistor uses metal, but instead of a semiconductor channel — which is packed with atoms that cause collisions as electrons flow through the channel — the new device uses an air gap. You might well think that if fewer atoms in the channel are better, why not use a vacuum?
[Charles Ouweland] purchased some parts off Aliexpress and noticed that the Texas Instruments logo on some of his parts wasn’t the Texas Instruments logo at all, it was just some kind of abstract shape that vaguely resembled the logo. Suspicious and a little curious, he decided to take a closer look at the MCP1702 3.3v LDO regulators he ordered as well. Testing revealed that they were counterfeits with poor performance.
Looking at the packages, there were some superficial differences in the markings of the counterfeit MCP1702 versus genuine parts from Microchip, but nothing obviously out of place. To conclusively test the devices, [Charles] referred to Microchip’s datasheet. It stated that the dropout voltage of the part should be measured by having the regulator supply the maximum rated 250 mA in short pulses to avoid any complications from the part heating up. After setting up an appropriate test circuit with a 555 timer to generate the pulses for low duty cycle activation, [Charles] discovered that the counterfeit parts did not meet Microchip specifications. While the suspect unit did output 3.3 V, the output oscillated badly after activation and the dropout voltage was 1.2 V, considerably higher than the typical dropout voltage of 525 mV for the part, and higher even than the maximum of 725 mV. His conclusion? The parts would be usable in the right conditions, but they were clearly fakes.
The usual recourse when one has received counterfeit parts is to dump them into the parts bin (or the trash) and perhaps strive to be less unlucky in the future, but [Charles] decided to submit a refund request and to his mild surprise, Aliexpress swiftly approved a refund for the substandard parts.
While a refund is appropriate, [Charles] seems to interpret the swift refund as a sort of admission of guilt on the part of the reseller. Is getting a refund for counterfeit parts a best-case outcome, evidence of wrongdoing, or simply an indication that low value refund requests get more easily approved? You be the judge of that, but if nothing else, [Charles] reminds us that fake parts may be useful for something perhaps unexpected: a refund.
For most of human history, our inventions and innovations have been at a scale that’s literally easy to grasp. From the largest cathedral to the finest pocket watch, everything that went into our constructions has been something we could see with our own eyes and manipulate with our hands. But in the middle of the 20th century, we started making really, really small stuff: semiconductors. For the first time, we were able to create mechanisms too small to be seen with the naked eye, and too fine to handle with our comparatively huge hands. We needed a way to scale these devices up somewhat to make them useful parts. In short, they needed to be packaged.
We know that the first commercially important integrated circuits were packaged in the now-familiar dual in-line package (DIP), the little black plastic millipedes that would crawl across circuit boards for the next 50 years. As useful and versatile as the DIP was, and for as successful as the package became, its design was anything but obvious. Let’s take a look at the dual in-line package and how it got that way.
When we were in school, every description of how transistors work was pretty dry and had a lot of math involved. We suppose you might have had a great instructor who was able to explain things more intuitively, but that was luck of the draw and statistically unlikely. These days, there are so many great videos on the Internet that explain things that even if you know the subject matter, it is fun to watch and see some of the great animations. For example [Sabin] has this beautifully animated explanation of how MOSFETs work that you can see below.
It uses the same basic graphics and style as his earlier video on bipolar transistors (second video, below) which is a great one to watch, too. In all fairness to your electronics teacher, the kind of graphics in these videos would have cost a fortune to do back in the 20th century — just watch some of the videos we talk about in some of our historical posts.
We’ve all been there: you need a specific tool or gadget to complete a project, but it’s not the kind of thing you necessarily want to fork over normal retail price for. It could be something you’re only going to use once or twice, or maybe you’re not even sure the idea is going to work and don’t want to invest too much money into it. You cast a skeptical towards the ever-growing pile of salvaged parts and wonder…
Inspiration and a dig through the junk bin is precisely how [Nixie] built this very impressive spin coater for use in his ongoing homemade semiconductor project. If you’ve never had first hand experience with a spin coater, don’t worry, not many people have. Put simply, it’s a machine that allows the user to deposit a thin layer of material on a disc by way of centrifugal force. Just place a few drops in the center of the disc, then spin it up fast enough and let physics do the rest.
[Nixie] only needs to spin up a fairly tiny disc, and realized the hub of a 40x40mm brushless case fan was just about the perfect size. A quick pass through the lathe stripped the hub of its blades and faced off the front. Once he found a tube that was the exact same diameter of the fan’s axle, he realized he could even use a small vacuum pump to hold his disc in place. A proper seal is provided by 10 and 16 mm OD o-rings, installed into concentric grooves he machined into the face of the hub.
With a way to draw a vacuum through the hub of the spinner he just needed the pump. As luck would have it, he didn’t have to wait for one to make the journey from China, as he had one of those kicking around his junk bin from a previous project. The only thing he ended up having to buy was the cheap PWM fan controller which he mounted along with the modified fan to a piece of black acrylic; producing a fairly professional looking little piece of lab equipment. Check out the video after the break for a brief demonstration of it in action.
Specialized processes require specialized tools and instruments, and processes don’t get much more specialized than the making of semiconductors. There’s a huge industry devoted to making the equipment needed for semiconductor fabrication plants, but most of it is fabulously expensive and out of reach to the home gamer. Besides, where’s the fun in buying when you can build your own fab lab stuff, like this DIY tube oven?
A tube oven isn’t much more complicated than it sounds — it’s just a tube that gets hot. Really, really hot — [Nixie] is shooting for 1,200 °C. Not just any materials will do for such an oven, of course, and this one is built out of blocks of fused alumina ceramic. The cavity for the tube was machined with a hole saw and a homebrew jig that keeps everything aligned; at first we wondered why he didn’t use his lathe, but then we realized that chucking a brittle block of ceramic would probably not end well. A smaller hole saw was used to make trenches for the Kanthal heating element and the whole thing was put in a custom stainless enclosure. A second post covers the control electronics and test runs up to 1,000°C, which ends up looking a little like the Eye of Sauron.