The $50 Ham: A Cheap Antenna For The HF Bands

So far in the $50 Ham series, I’ve concentrated mainly on the VHF and UHF bands. The reason for this has to do mainly with FCC rules, which largely restrict Technician-level licensees to those bands. But there’s a financial component to it, too; high-frequency (HF) band privileges come both at the price of learning enough about radio to pass the General license test, as well as the need for gear that can be orders of magnitude more expensive than a $30 handy-talkie radio.

But while HF gear can be expensive, not everything needed to get on the air has to be so. And since it’s often the antenna that makes or breaks an amateur radio operator’s ability to make contacts, we’ll look at a simple but versatile antenna design that can be adapted to support everything from a big, powerful base station to portable QRP (low-power) activations in the field: the end-fed half-wave antenna.

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Digging In The Dirt Yields Homebrew Inductors

Let’s say you’re stranded on a desert island and want to get the news from the outside world. You’ll have to build your own crystal radio, of course, but your parts bin is nowhere to be found and Digi-Key isn’t delivering. So you’ll need to MacGuyver some components. Capacitors are easy with a couple of pieces of tinfoil, and a rectifier can be made from a pencil and a razor blade. But what about an inductor?¬†Sure, air-core inductors will work, but just because you’re marooned doesn’t mean you’ve abandoned your engineering principles. Luckily, you’ve read [AC7ZL]’s treatise of making inductors from dirt, and with sand in abundance, you’re able to harvest enough material to put together some passable ferrite-core inductors.

Obviously, making your own inductive elements isn’t practical even in fanciful and contrived situations, but that doesn’t make the doing of it any less cool. The story begins with a walk in the Arizona desert many years ago, where [AC7ZL], aka [H.P. Friedrichs], spied bands of dark sand shooting through the underlying lighter sediments. These bands turned out to be magnetite, one of many iron-bearing minerals found in the area. Using a powerful magnet from an old hard drive and a plastic food container, he was able to harvest magnetite sand in abundance and refine it with multiple washing steps.

After experimentally determining the material’s permeability — about 2.3 H/m — [AC7ZL] proceeded with some practical applications. He was able to make a bar antenna for an AM radio by packing the sand into a PVC pipe and rewinding the coils around it. More permanent cores were made by mixing the sand with polyester resin and casting it into bars. Toroids were machined from fat bars of the composite on a lathe, much to the detriment of the cutting tools used.

The full-length PDF account of [AC7ZL]’s experiments makes for fascinating reading — the inductive elements he was able to create all performed great in everything from a Joule Thief to a Hartley oscillator up to 27 MHz. We love these kinds of stories, which remind us of some of the work being done by [Simplifier] and others.

Homebrew Coil Winder Makes Toroids A Snap To Wind

Anyone who has ever wound a toroidal coil by hand can tell you that it’s not exactly a fun job. Even with the kinds of coils used in chokes and transformers for ham radio, which generally have relatively few windings, passing all that wire through the toroid time after time is a pain. And woe unto anyone who guesses wrong on how much wire the job will take.

To solve those problems, [Sandeep] came up with this clever and effective toroid winder. The idea is to pass a small spool of magnet wire through the toroid’s core while simultaneously rotating the toroid to spread the windings out as evenly as possible. That obviously requires a winding ring that can be opened up to allow the toroid form to be inserted; [Sandeep] chose to make his winding ring out of plywood with a slit in it. Carrying the wire spool, the winding ring rotates on a C-shaped fixture that brackets the toroid, which itself rotates under stepper motor control on a trio of rollers. An Arduino controls the rotation of both motors, controlling the number of windings and their spread on the form. lacking a ferrite core for testing, [Sandeep] used a plywood ring as a stand-in, but the results are satisfying enough to make any manual coil-winder envious.

We love tools like this that make a boring job a snap. Whether it’s cutting wires for wiring harnesses or winding guitar pickups, tools like these are well worth the time spent to build them. But we suppose when it comes to toroid winding,¬†one could always cheat.

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Homebrew Loop Antenna Brings The Shortwave World To You

Radio may be dead in terms of delivering entertainment, but it’s times like these when the original social network comes into its own. Being able to tune in stations from across the planet to get fresh perspectives on a global event can even be a life saver. You’ll need a good antenna to do that, which is where this homebrew loop antenna for the shortwave radio bands shines.

To be honest, pretty much any chunk of wire will do as an antenna for most shortwave receivers. But not everyone lives somewhere where it’s possible to string up a hundred meters of wire and get a good ground connection, which could make a passive loop antenna like this a good choice. Plus, loops tend to cancel the electrical noise that’s so part of life today, which can make it easier to pull in weak, distant stations.

[Thomas]’s design is based on a length of coaxial cable, which should be stiff enough to give the loop some stability, like a low-loss RG-8 or RG-213. The coax braid and dielectric are exposed at the midpoint of the cable to create a feed point, while the shield and center conductor at the other ends are cross-connected. A 1:1 transformer is wound on a toroid core to connect to the feedpoint; [Thomas] calls it a balun but we tend to think it’s more of an unun, since both the antenna and feedline are unbalanced. He reports good results from the loop across the shortwave band.

The shortwave and ham bands are a treasure trove of information and entertainment just waiting to be explored. Check them out — you might learn something, and you might even stumble across spies doing their thing.

[via RTL-SDR.com]

Powering Neon With A Joule Thief

Joule thief are small, fun circuits which exploit a few characteristics of electronics and LEDs in order to “steal” virtually all of the energy stored in a battery. They can operate at incredibly small voltages and are fairly simple to make. With a few modifications to this basic circuit it’s possible to drive other things than an LED, though, like this joule thief that lights up a neon bulb.

The circuit from [suedbunker] aka [fuselage] is based on a pin from the Chaos Communication Camp which had a standard LED. To get a neon light to illuminate a few modifications to the standard joule thief are needed.

First, the windings have to be changed from 10:10 to 10:80 to increase the voltage across the bulb. Second, a transistor with slightly different characteristics was used than the original design. The capacitor was also replaced with a larger one.

While it might seem simple, the physics of how a joule thief works are anything but, and modifying the delicate circuit to work with something other than an LED is commendable. It also has a steampunk vibe which is a cool look even in projects that don’t involve steam at all.

The RFI Hunter: Looking For Noise In All The Wrong Places

Next time you get a new device and excitedly unwrap its little poly-wrapped power supply, remember this: for every switch-mode power supply you plug in, an amateur radio operator sheds a tear. A noisy, broadband, harmonic-laden tear.

The degree to which this fact disturbs you very much depends upon which side of the mic you’re on, but radio-frequency interference, or RFI, is something we should all at least be aware of. [Josh (KI6NAZ)] is keenly aware of RFI in his ham shack, but rather than curse the ever-rising noise floor he’s come up with some helpful tips for hunting down and eliminating it – or at least reducing its impact.

Attacking the problem begins with locating the sources of RFI, for which [Josh] used the classic “one-circuit-at-a-time” approach – kill every breaker in the panel and monitor the noise floor while flipping each breaker back on. This should at least give you a rough idea of where the offending devices are in your house. From there, [Josh] used a small shortwave receiver to locate problem areas, like the refrigerator, the clothes dryer, and his shack PC. The family flat-screen TV proved to be quite noisy too. Remediation techniques include wrapping every power cord and cable around toroids or clamping ferrite cores around them, both on the offending devices and in the shack. He even went so far as to add a line filter to the dryer to clamp down on its unwanted interference.

Judging by his waterfall displays, [Josh]’s efforts paid off, bringing his noise floor down from S5 to S1 or so. It’s too bad he had to take matters into his own hands – it’s not like the FCC and other spectrum watchdogs don’t know there’s a problem, after all.

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Camcorder Viewfinder Converted To Diminutive Vector Display

We generally cast a skeptical eye at projects that claim some kind of superlative. If you go on about the “World’s Smallest” widget, the chances are pretty good that someone will point to a yet smaller version of the same thing. But in the case of what’s touted as “The world’s smallest vector monitor”, we’re willing to take that chance.

If you’ve seen any of [Arcade Jason]’s projects before, you’ll no doubt have noticed his abiding affection for vector displays. We’re OK with that; after all, many of the best machines from the Golden Age of arcade games such as Asteroids and Tempest were based on vector graphics. None so small as the current work, though, based as it is on the CRT from an old camcorder’s viewfinder. The tube appears to be about 3/4″ (19 mm) in diameter, and while it still had some of its original circuitry, the deflection coils had to be removed. In their place, [Jason] used a ferrite toroid with two windings, one for vertical and one for horizontal. Those were driven directly by a two-channel push-pull audio amplifier to make patterns on the screen. Skip to 15:30 in the video below to see the display playing [Jerobeam Fenderson]’s “Oscilloscope Music”.

As much as we’d love to see a tiny game of Battlezone played on the diminutive display, there’s only so much it can do. Maybe an analog version of this adorable digital oscilloscope would be possible?

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