All About PNP Transistors

In the early days, PNP bipolar transistors were common, but the bulk of circuits you see today use NPN transistors. As [Aaron Danner] points out, many people think PNP transistors are “backward” but they have an important role to play in many circuits. He explains it all in a recent video you can see below.

He does explain why PNP transistors don’t perform as well as corresponding NPN transistors, but they are still necessary sometimes. Once you get used to it, they are no problem to handle at all. Common cases where you want a PNP are, for example, when you want to switch a voltage instead of a ground. There are also certain amplifier configurations that need PNP units.

Like an NPN transistor, a PNP can operate in saturation, linear operation, reverse active, or it can be cut off. [Aaron] shows you how to bias a transistor and you’ll see it isn’t much different from an NPN except the base-emitter diode junction is reversed.

As you might expect, current has to flow through that diode junction to turn the transistor on. The arrow points in the direction of the diode junction. If you want a refresher on transistor biasing, we got you. Sure, you don’t need to do it every day now, but it still is a useful skill to have.

Continue reading “All About PNP Transistors”

Homebrew Computer From The Ground Up

Building a retro computer of some sort is a rite of passage for many of us, with some building replicas or restorations of old Commodores, Ataris, and other machines from decades past. Others go even further back, to the time of the Intel 8008 or earlier, and a dedicated few will build something completely novel. This project from [3DSage] falls squarely in the latter category, with his completely DIY computer built component by component from scratch, including the machine code needed to run it.

[3DSage] starts with the backbone of every computer: the clock. He first demonstrates how a pair of NOT gates with a set of capacitors can be used as a rudimentary clock pulse, then builds a more refined version with a 555 timer and potentiometer for adjustable rates. Then, it’s on to creating a binary counter, which is a fundamental part of the memory system for this small computer, and finally, allows this circuitry to behave like a normal computer. Using a set of switches to store values in memory and stepping through them with the clock, the computer can be programmed to do plenty of tasks just like a modern microcontroller.

[3DSage] built this project a few years ago and has used it for real-world applications such as controlling servos, LED arrays, playing music, and other tasks. Although he has to program it using his own machine code by hand, it’s a usable computer in many ways. If you want to eschew modernity and build a retro computer in the style of the 1960s, though, this piece goes through what it would have been like to build a similar system in the era when these computers were more common. If you have a switch fetish, you might like to see how real computers worked back then, too.

Continue reading “Homebrew Computer From The Ground Up”

Reprogrammable Transistors

Not every computer can make use of a disk drive when it needs to store persistent data. Embedded systems especially have pushed the development of a series of erasable programmable read-only memories (EPROMs) because of their need for speed and reliability. But erasing memory and writing it over again, whether it’s an EPROM, an EEPROM, an FPGA, or some other type of configurable solid-state memory is just scratching the surface of what it might be possible to get integrated circuits and their transistors to do. This team has created a transistor that itself is programmable.

Rather than doping the semiconductor material with impurities to create the electrical characteristics needed for the transistor, the team from TU Wien in Vienna has developed a way to “electrostatically dope” the semiconductor, using electric fields instead of physical impurities to achieve the performance needed in the material. A second gate, called the program gate, can be used to reconfigure the electric fields within the transistor, changing its properties on the fly. This still requires some electrical control, though, so the team doesn’t expect their new invention to outright replace all transistors in the future, and they also note that it’s unlikely that these could be made as small as existing transistors due to the extra complexity.

While the article from IEEE lists some potential applications for this technology in the broad sense, we’d like to see what these transistors are actually capable of doing on a more specific level. It seems like these types of circuits could improve efficiency, as fewer transistors might be needed for a wider variety of tasks, and that there are certainly some enhanced security features these could provide as well. For a refresher on the operation of an everyday transistor, though, take a look at this guide to the field-effect transistor.

A Transistor, But For Heat Instead Of Electrons

Researchers at UCLA recently developed what they are calling a thermal transistor: a solid-state device able to control the flow of heat with an electric field. This opens the door to controlling the transfer of heat in some of the same ways we are used to controlling electronics.

Heat management can be a crucial task, especially where electronics are involved. The usual way to manage heat is to draw it out with things like heat sinks. If heat isn’t radiating away fast enough, a fan can be turned on (or sped up) to meet targets. Compared to the precision and control with which modern semiconductors shuttle electrons about, the ability to actively manage heat seems lacking.

This new device can rapidly adjust thermal conductivity of a channel based on an electrical field input, which is very similar to what a transistor does for electrical conductivity. Applying an electrical field modifies the strength of molecular bonds in a cage-like array of molecules, which in turn adjusts their thermal conductivity.

It’s still early, but this research may open the door to better control of heat within semiconductor systems. This is especially interesting considering that 3D chips have been picking up speed for years (stacking components is already a thing, it’s called Package-on-Package assembly) and the denser and deeper semiconductors get, the harder it is to passively pull heat out.

Thanks to [Jacob] for the tip!

The Geometry Of Transistors

Building things in a lab is easy, at least when compared to scaling up for mass production. That’s why there are so many articles about fusion being right around the corner, or battery technology that’ll allow aviation to switch away from fossil fuels, or any number of other miraculous solutions that never come into being. They simply don’t scale or can’t be manufactured in a cost effective way. But even when they are miraculous and can be produced on a massive scale, as is the case for things like transistors, there are some oddities that come up as a result of the process of making so many. This video goes into some of the intricacies of a bipolar junction transistor (BJT) and why it looks the way it does.

The BJT in this video is a fairly standard NPN type, with three layers of silicon acting as emitter, base, and collector. Typically when learning about electronics devices the drawings of them are simplified two-dimensional block diagrams, but under a microscope this transistor at first appears nothing like the models shown in the textbook. Instead it resembles more of a bird’s foot with a few small wires attached. The bird’s foot shape is a result of attempting to lower the undesirable resistances of the device and improve its performance, and some of its other quirks are due to the manufacturing process. That process starts with a much larger layer of doped silicon that will eventually become the collector, and then the other two, much smaller, layers of the transistor deposited on top of the collector. This also explains while it looks like there are only two layers upon first glance, and also shows that the horizontal diagram used to model the device is actually positioned vertically in the real world.

For most of the processes in our daily lives, the transistor has largely been abstracted away. We don’t have to think about them in a computer that much anymore, and unless work is being done on high-wattage power electronics devices, radios, or audio amplifiers it’s not likely that an average person will run into a transistor. But this video goes a long way to explaining the basics of one of the fundamental building blocks of the modern world for those willing to take a dive into the physics. Take a look at this video as well for an intuitive explanation of the close cousin of the BJT, the field-effect transistor.

Continue reading “The Geometry Of Transistors”

CPU Built From Discrete Transistors

We all know, at least intellectually, that our computers are all built with lots of tiny transistors. But beyond that it’s a little hard to describe. They’re printed on a silicon wafer somehow, and since any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, they miraculously create a large part of modern society. Even most computers from 40 or 50 years ago were built around various inscrutable integrated circuits. On the other hand, this computer goes all the way back to first principles and implements a complete processor out of individual transistors instead.

The transistor computer uses over 2000 individual transistors to implement everything comprising the 11-bit CPU. The creator, Reddit user [ Weekly_Salamander_78] also has an online interactive book that walks through each of the steps that is required to get to the point of having a working computer like this. Starting with a guide on building logic gates from transistors it will eventually cover the arithmetic logic unit, adders, memory, clocks, and everything else that is needed for the complete CPU to get up and running. The design does rely on an Arduino for memory to simplify some things, and in the end it’s able to run a Hello, World! program and play a simple dinosaur game as well.

Building a computer out of discrete components like this is an impressive accomplishment, although we might not envy the creator of it when it comes time for troubleshooting or maintenance of all of those individual components. Presumably it would be much easier to work on than something like a relay computer, but for now we’ll all take a moment to be thankful that almost no one needs to work on debugging vacuum tube computers anymore.

Exploring The Early Days Of QRP Radio

Morse code might seem obsolete but for situations with extremely limited bandwidth it’s often still the best communications option available. The code requires a fair amount of training to use effectively, though, and even proficient radio operators tend to send only around 20 words per minute. As a result of the reduced throughput, a type of language evolved around Morse code which, like any language, has evolved and changed over time. QRP initially meant something akin to “you are overloading my receiver, please reduce transmitter power” but now means “operating radios at extremely low power levels”. [MIKROWAVE1] explores some of the earlier options for QRP radios in this video.

There’s been some debate in the amateur radio community over the years over what power level constitutes a QRP operation, but it’s almost certainly somewhere below 100 watts, and while the radios in this video have varying power levels, they tend to be far below this upper threshold, with some operating on 1 watt or less. There are a few commercial offerings demonstrated here, produced from the 70s to the mid-80s, but a few are made from kits as well. Kits tended to be both accessible and easily repairable, with Heathkit being the more recognizable option among this category. To operate Morse code (or “continuous wave” as hams would call it) only requires a single transistor which is why kits were so popular, but there are a few other examples in this video with quite a few more transistors than that. In fact, there are all kinds of radios featured here with plenty of features we might even consider modern by today’s standards; at least when Morse code is concerned.

QRP radios in general are attractive because they tend to be smaller, simpler, and more affordable. Making QRP contacts over great distances also increases one’s ham radio street cred, especially when using Morse, although this benefit is more intangible. There’s a large trend going on in the radio world right now surrounding operating from parks and mountain peaks, which means QRP is often the only way to get that done especially when operating on battery power. Modern QRP radios often support digital and voice modes as well and can have surprisingly high prices, but taking some cues from this video about radios built in decades past could get you on the radio for a minimum or parts and cost, provided you can put in the time.

Continue reading “Exploring The Early Days Of QRP Radio”