NFC Performance: It’s All In The Antenna

NFC tags are a frequent target for experimentation, whether simply by using an app on a mobile phone to interrogate or write to tags, by incorporating them in projects by means of an off-the-shelf module, or by designing a project using them from scratch. Yet they’re not always easy to get right, and can often give disappointing results. This article will attempt to demystify what is probably the most likely avenue for an NFC project to have poor performance, the pickup coil antenna in the reader itself.

A selection of the NFC tags on my desk
A selection of the NFC tags on my desk

The tags contain chips that are energised through the RF field that provides enough power for them to start up, at which point they can communicate with a host computer for whatever their purpose is.

“NFC” stands for “Near Field Communication”, in which data can be exchanged between physically proximate devices without their being physically connected.  Both reader and tag achieve this through an antenna, which takes the form of a flat coil and a capacitor that together make a resonant tuned circuit. The reader sends out pulses of RF which is maintained once an answer is received from a card, and thus communication can be established until the card is out of the reader’s range. Continue reading “NFC Performance: It’s All In The Antenna”

Low-End Parts Make Tesla Coil With A High-End Look

We all know the saying: cheap, fast, or good — pick any two. That rule seems to apply across the spectrum of hackerdom, from software projects to hardware builds. But this DIY Tesla coil build might just manage to deliver on all three.

Cheap? [Jay Bowles]’ Tesla coil is based on a handheld bug zapper that you can find for a couple of bucks, or borrow from the top of the fridge in the relatively bug-free winter months. The spark gap is just a couple of screws set into scraps of nylon cutting board — nothing fancy there. Fast? Almost everything needed to build this is stuff lying around the house, and depending on the state of your junk bin you may not even have to order the polypropylene caps [Jay] recommends. Good? That’s a relative term, of course, and if you define it as a coil capable of putting out pumpkin-slaying lightning bolts or playing “Yakkity Sax”, you’ll likely be disappointed. But there’s no denying that this Tesla coil looks good, from its Lexan base to the door-pull top load. And running off a couple of AA batteries, it’s safe to use too.

[Jay] put a lot of care into winding and dressing the secondary coil neatly, and the whole thing would look great as a desktop toy. Not into the winding part? You can always etch a PCB Tesla coil instead.

Continue reading “Low-End Parts Make Tesla Coil With A High-End Look”

Radio Tuning The Quicksilver Way

Modern radios are often digital affairs, in which the frequency is derived from a stable crystal oscillator and varied through a microprocessor controlled frequency synthesiser. It won’t drift, and it’s exactly on the frequency dialed in. Older radios though relied on a tuned circuit, a combination of capacitor and inductor, for their frequency selection. If you were curious enough to peer inside — and we know you were — you’d have seen the moving vanes of a variable capacitor controlled by the tuning knob.

Of course, there is another way to adjust a tuned circuit: by changing the value of the inductor. Older car radios for instance moved a ferrite slug inside a coil to tune from station to station. But that method is not good enough for [David Mills]. Being in possession of some finely graduated syringes he decided to try liquid tuning by increasing the volume within the coil.

Solutions of salts made little difference, so he reached for some mercury. The result is an RF inductor wound round a syringe body, with a body of mercury whose position can be adjusted by the plunger. He measures the Q factor of the coil with air core or mercury core, and as the inductance decreases with more mercury, so does the Q.

We see home-made parts from time to time, and there’s nothing too special about permeability tuning. However, this unusual take on the matter makes this one rather special. We doubt we’ll see its like very often in the future.