Home Brew Solar Cells for the Chemically Curious

The idea of making your own semiconductors from scratch would be more attractive if it weren’t for the expensive equipment and noxious chemicals required for silicon fabrication. But simple semiconductors can be cooked up at home without anything fancy, and they can actually yield pretty good results.

Granted, [Simplifier] has been working on the method detailed in the video below for about a year, and a look at his post on copper oxide thin-film solar cells reveals a meticulous approach to optimize everything. He started with regular window glass, heated over a propane burner and sprayed with a tin oxide solution to make it conductive while remaining transparent. The N-type layer was sprayed on next in the form of zinc oxide doped with magnesium. Copper oxide, the P-type layer, was electroplated on next, followed by a quick dip in copper sulfide to act as another transparent conductor. A conductive compound of sodium silicate and graphite was layered on the back to form the electrical contacts. The cell worked pretty well — 525 mV open circuit voltage and 6.5 mA short-circuit current. Not bad for home brewed.

If you want to replicate [Simplifier]’s methods, you’ll find his ample documentation of his site. Of course, if you yearn for DIY silicon semiconductors, there’s a fab for that, too.

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LED Fabrication from Wafer to Light

Building a circuit to blink an LED is the hardware world’s version of the venerable “Hello, world!” program — it teaches you the basics in a friendly, approachable way. And the blinky light project remains a valuable teaching tool right up through the hardware wizard level, provided you build your own LEDs first.

For [emach1ne], the DIY LED was part of a Master’s degree course and began with a slice of epitaxial wafer that goes through cleaning, annealing, and acid etching steps in preparation for photolithography. While gingerly handling some expensive masks, [emach1ne] got to use some really cool tools and processes — mask aligners, plasma etchers, and electron beam vapor deposition. [emach1ne] details every step that led to a nursery of baby LEDs on the wafer, each of which was tested. Working arrays were cut from the wafer and mounted in a lead frame, bonded with gold wires, and fiat lux.

The whole thing must have been a great experience in modern fab methods, and [emach1ne] should feel lucky to have access to tools like these. But if you think you can’t build your own semiconductor fab, we beg to differ.

[via r/engineering]

The Fab Lab Next Door: DIY Semiconductors

You think you’ve got it going on because you can wire up some eBay modules and make some LEDs blink, or because you designed your own PCB, or maybe even because you’re an RF wizard. Then you see that someone is fabricating semiconductors at home, and you realize there’s always another mountain to climb.

We were mesmerized when we first saw [Sam Zeloof]’s awesome garage-turned-semiconductor fab lab. He says he’s only been acquiring equipment since October of 2016, but in that short time he’s built quite an impressive array of gear; a spin-coating centrifuge, furnaces, tons of lab supplies and toxic chemicals, a turbomolecular vacuum pump, and a vacuum chamber that looks like something from a CERN lab.

[Sam]’s goal is to get set up for thin-film deposition so he can make integrated circuits, but with what he has on hand he’s managed to build a few diodes, some photovoltaic cells, and a couple of MOSFETs. He’s not growing silicon crystals and making his own wafers — yet — but relies on eBay to supply his wafers. The video below is a longish intro to [Sam]’s methods, and his YouTube channel has a video tour of his fab and a few videos on making specific devices.

[Sam] credits [Jeri Ellsworth]’s DIY semiconductor efforts, which we’ve covered before, as inspiration for his fab, and we’re going to be watching to see where he takes it from here. For now, though, we’d better boost the aspiration level of our future projects.

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Building Transistors with Transistors

Since the 1940s when the first transistor was created, transistors have evolved from ornery blocks of germanium wrangled into basic amplifiers into thousands and thousands of different devices made of all kinds of material that make any number of electrical applications possible, cheap, and reliable. MOSFETs can come in at least four types: P- or N-channel, and enhancement or depletion mode. They also bear different power ratings. And some varieties are more loved than others; for instance, depletion-mode, N-channel power MOSFETs are comparatively scarce. [DeepSOIC] was trying to find one before he decided to make his own by hacking a more readily available enhancement-mode transistor.

For those not intimately familiar with semiconductor physics, the difference between these two modes is essentially the difference between a relay that is normally closed and one that’s normally open. Enhancement-mode transistors are “normally off” and are easy to obtain and (for most of us) useful for almost all applications. On the other hand, if you need a “normally on” transistor, you will need to source a depletion mode transistor. [DeepSOIC] was able to create a depletion mode transistor by “torturing” the transistor to effectively retrain the semiconductor junctions in the device.

If you’re interested in semiconductors and how transistors work on an atomic level, [DeepSOIC]’s project will keep you on the edge of your seat. On the other hand, if you’re new to the field and looking to get a more basic understanding, look no further than these DIY diodes.

Honey, They Shrunk the Transistor

Silicon transistors keep shrinking (current state of the art is about 20 nanometers). However–in theory–once the gate goes to 5 nanometers, the electrons tunnel through the channel making it impossible to turn the transistor off. Berkeley researchers have used a different material to produce a transistor with a 1-nanometer gate. For point of reference, a human hair is about 50,000 nanometers thick.

The secret is to switch away from silicon in favor of another semiconductor. The team’s choice? Molybdenum disulfide. Never heard of it? You can buy it at any auto parts store since it is a common lubricant. Electrons have more effective mass as they travel through molybdenum disulfide than silicon. For a larger transistor, that’s not a good thing, but for a small transistor, it prevents the electron tunneling problem.

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History Of The Diode

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.

Electroscope
Electroscope

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.

Thermionic diode
Thermionic diode. By Svjo [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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.

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Books You Should Read: Instruments Of Amplification

Psst… Wanna make a canning jar diode? A tennis ball triode? How about a semiconductor transistor? Or do you just enjoy sitting back and following along an interesting narrative of something being made, while picking up a wealth of background, tips and sparking all sorts of ideas? In my case I wanted to make a cuprous oxide semiconductor diode and that lead me to H.P. Friedrichs’ wonderful book Instruments of Amplification. It includes such a huge collection of amplifier knowledge and is a delight to read thanks to a narrative style and frequent hands-on experiments.

Friedrichs first authored another very popular book, The Voice of the Crystal, about making crystal radios, and wanted to write a second one. For those not familiar with crystal radios, they’re fun to make radios that are powered solely by the incoming radio waves; there are no batteries. But that also means the volume is low.

Readers of that book suggested a good follow-up would be one about amplifier circuits, to amplify the crystal radio’s volume. However, there were already an abundance of such books. Friedrichs realized the best follow-up would be one on how to make the amplifying components from scratch, the “instruments of amplification”.  It would be unique and in the made-from-scratch spirit of crystal radios. The book, Instruments of Amplification was born.

The Experiments

Microphonic relays
Microphonic relays, via H.P. Friedrichs Homepage

The book includes just the right amount of a history, giving background on what an amplifier is and how they first came in the electrical world. Telegraph operators wanted to send signals over greater and greater distances and the solution was to use the mix of electronics and mechanics found in the telegraph relay. This is the springboard for his first project and narrative: the microphonic relay.

The microphonic relay example shown on the right places a speaker facing a microphone; the speaker is the input with the microphone amplifying the output. He uses a carbon microphone salvaged from an old telephone headset, housing everything in an enclosure of copper pipe caps, steel bar stock, nuts and bolts mounted on an elegant looking wood base. All the projects are made with simple parts, with care, and they end up looking great.

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