Happy New Year

Greetings People of the Internet!  First off, Happy New Year!  The last twelve months have proven quite interesting, yes?  Whether good or bad, I think the term “interesting” is fairly safe here.  I can’t say my 2011 has been all that great, but it’s certainly been interesting.  I do hope, however, that you’ve had a good year.  :)

One other quick note; in case you’re wondering what happened to Grieg, he died of heart failure in 1907.  And in case you’re wondering what happened to grieg.gotdns.com (my former domain name), I finally bit the bullet and purchased a real address for this trite little blog: nlvocables.com.  If you subscribe, you may want to update your links (although I intend to leave grieg.gotdns.com alive and forwarding for as long as the internet allows).  Please let me know if you have any issues.

As usual, keep the comments and questions coming.  Best wishes for a successful 2012!

Posted in Just For Fun | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

New Toys: Bus Pirate and Digipots

That’s right, I’m now the proud new owner of a Dangerous Prototypes’ Bus Pirate.  I’ve been looking at these things for awhile, and finally decided that I should stop being such a cheapskate and just get one.  Yea, I know I can always rig up one of my AVRs to do serial communications, but this is just so much more convenient.  And at $30 (I got mine from SparkFun), it’s a pretty sweet deal.

Bus Pirate Closeup

So what did I get for my three Hamiltons?  Well, check this out (courtesy SFE):

  • Supported protocols:
    • 1-Wire
    • I2C
    • SPI
    • JTAG
    • Asynchronous serial
    • MIDI
    • PC keyboard
    • HD44780 LCD
    • 2- and 3-wire libraries with bitwise pin control
    • Scriptable binary bitbang, 1-Wire, I2C, SPI, and UART modes
  • 0-5.5volt tolerant pins
  • 0-6volt measurement probe
  • 1Hz – 40MHz frequency measurement
  • 1kHz – 4MHz pulse-width modulator, frequency generator
  • On-board multi-voltage pull-up resistors
  • On-board 3.3volt and 5volt power supplies with software reset
  • Macros for common operations
  • Bus traffic sniffers (SPI, I2C)
  • A bootloader for easy firmware updates
  • Transparent USB->serial mode
  • 10Hz – 1MHz low-speed logic analyzer
  • Scriptable from Perl, Python, etc. (aka everything)
  • Translations (currently Spanish and Italian)
  • Enumerates as a virtual COM port over USB
  • Can operate as AVR STK v2 clone programmer
  • Access to PIC24FJ64 ICSP programming port

Needless to say, the Bus Pirate’s capabilities are extensive.  And open source.

Thus far I’ve tested out its UART and SPI modes, and have been sufficiently impressed.  Which leads me to my next new toy, an SPI digital potentiometer, the MCP42010:

MCP42010 Digital Potentiometer

This particular part comes in a 14-DIP package, contains two 10k potentiometers with 8-bit resolution, and can be had for just $2.40 from Digi-Key.  I’m thinking of using it in an audio compressor / volume control prototype, but it may come in handy elsewhere.

Controlling this digipot is just ridiculously easy when using the Bus Pirate.  Once connected and in SPI mode, I simply issue the command “[0b11011111, x]” (without the quotes), where x is a value from 0-255 representing the potentiometers’ wiper positions.  The two least significant bits (11 above) of the first byte tell the chip which of its potentiometers to adjust.  You can set one at a time, or both simultaneously.  Bits 4 and 5 of the first byte (01 above) allow you to either write data to the wiper registers or put the digipot into a high-impedance shutdown mode (which could be great for reducing power consumption).  The same effect can be achieved by pulling pin 12 low.  Want to reset the potentiometer to its 50% position (this also happens automatically on power-up)?  Pin 11 will do just that when pulled low.  For all the gory details, take a look at this datasheet.

Bus Pirate and Digipot Test Setup

This little chip is pretty impressive.  It’s also available in 50k and 100k versions.  The only thing it really can’t do is handle much current (wiper current should be kept under ±1mA).  But just toss in some buffer op-amps and you’ll be all set.  That’s my plan anyways.

Posted in Hobbies, Test | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

LabVIEW: The Simple Talking Voltmeter

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time examining a fairly complex circuit board from my old, but still functional, clock radio/CD player.  I was using the probe of my handheld multimeter to measure voltages at various IC pins and circuit traces.  At one point during the process I thought, “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if I had someone here to read the voltmeter to me as I test various points?  That way I could focus on my probe and not accidentally short neighboring pins.”  But then I realized that I did have someone to do just that: Microsoft Sam.  I present to you the NI LabVIEW talking voltmeter:

For those of you without LabVIEW, here are a few screenshots of the subVIs shown in the video above.  Don’t forget that you can always download a free, unrestricted 30-day trial of LabVIEW from the NI website (seriously, it’s awesome, you should try it).

First, the initialization VI, which opens the Microsoft ISpeechVoice reference:

Initializing the Speed Interface

Next, the blocks responsible for detecting new steady-state voltages:

Detecting New Steady-State Voltages

Finally, the code which converts numbers into strings and sends them to Sam:

Convert and Speak the Values

Many thanks to Grant Heimbach, whose sample speech VI saved me a lot of development time (his original code is available on the NI Developer Community).

Click here to download a simple example VI which utilizes the code shown above.

The full, unmodified IOBoard Voltmeter program, as well as all of its supporting components, can be located at the bottom of the Mobile Studio Downloads page.

Got questions or comments?  As always, feel free to leave them below!

Posted in Hobbies, Just For Fun, Test | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Heatsink or Swim

Apparently I have a thing for testing.  I rather love to run experiments, even when there’s no immediate need for the results.  I guess I just enjoy trying stuff, and hey, maybe even learning a thing or two. :)

So last weekend I was doing a bit of tinkering and got to wondering about the performance of different heatsinks.  Now just intuitively, I know that larger heat sinks tend to dissipate more heat than smaller ones – particularly if they have larger surface areas.  But just how much better is a tall, finned heatsink than a small, clip-on device?  This is what I wanted to find out.  So I gathered up five sinks of varying sizes and started to design my test.

The Heatsink LineupPictured above, from left to right, we have the following parts:

  1. A small clip-on heatsink, 230-75AB, cost: $0.36
  2. A medium-sized, bolt-on heatsink, 7-340-2PP-BA, cost: $3.91
  3. A larger bolt-on heatsink, 531202B00000G, cost: $1.28
  4. A Pentium 4, Socket 478 CPU cooler, cost: ~$35.00
  5. A Crydom SSR heatsink, HE-54, cost: ~$25.00

I decided to test each of these sinks with a TO-220 package transistor (since, at least in the case of the first three devices, this is what they were designed to cool).  Specifically, I’ve chosen the IRL2703, an N-channel MOSFET rated for 30V and 24A.  Now, the TO-220 package is also commonly used with regulators, diodes, etc.  So these heatsinks might be found in a number of different applications.

In order to control the power dissipated in the transistor, I’ve built a very simple current-control circuit using an op-amp (LM741) and a 0.1Ω sense resistor (Rs):

MOSFET Current Control Schematic

I will be using the transistor as, essentially, a variable resistor connected to a 12VDC power supply.  The transistor’s drain-to-source resistance varies based on the voltage applied between its gate and source.  Control of this voltage is the responsibility of the op-amp shown in the schematic above.

If you can recall the “golden rules” of ideal op-amps, you’ll remember that, with negative feedback (that is, a path between the op-amp’s output and its inverting (-) terminal), the voltage at the op-amp’s inverting (-) terminal will be equal to the voltage at its non-inverting (+) terminal.  In the circuit above then, if Vin = 1V, after being passed through the potentiometer’s 10:1 voltage division, the voltage at the op-amp’s non-inverting (+) terminal, and consequently its inverting terminal, will be 0.1V (remember also that no current flows into either of these “ideal” terminals).

So notice that the op-amp’s inverting terminal is connected to one leg of our sense resistor, Rs.  So when our input voltage is 1V, the voltage across Rs will be 0.1V (remember the voltage divider).  By Ohm’s law then, the current through the sense resistor will be I = V/R = 0.1/0.1 = 1Amp.  So an input of 1V will yield 1A through the transistor.  With an input voltage of 12V then, we’ll be dissipating approximately 12W in the transistor (actually 11.9W, to be precise; we’ll lose 0.1W in the sense resistor).

For my experiments, I’ll be using a constant current of 0.5A, which will yield a power of 6W.  This seems to be a reasonable value to use with all of my heat sinks.  And it’s still not quite enough to completely toast a naked (no heatsink) transistor.

In order to measure the temperature of the transistor as the test proceeds, I’ll be using a Kintrex infrared thermometer, model IRT0421, which I’ve had for years.  My plan is to simply move the thermometer around the transistor, at close range (1-2″), and record its maximum reading.  Admittedly, this isn’t the most precise solution.  A better idea would probably be to attach a small thermocouple between the transistor and the sink.  But that’s something I don’t have.  My method should at least provide a good indicator of relative, if not absolute, performance.

My procedure here is quite simple.  First, I will attach a heatsink to the transistor using a small thermal pad.  I will then apply a current of 0.5A at 12VDC, and allow the transistor to reach a stead-state temperature.  I will then allow everything to cool, remove the thermal pad, and try the same test again.  Perhaps my video-self can explain this better:

Before diving into the results, here are a few more pictures of the circuit and setup.  By the way, in case you’re wondering what that silver pen-like device is that’s jammed into my protoboard next to the opamp, it’s my home-made scope probe.  I took an old BIC pen, removed the guts, and then epoxied in a dulled sewing needle and wire.  It’s actually a great little probe; I leave it connected to my IOBoard most of the time.

Current Control Circuit

This is how the transistor was attached to the Crydom heatsink:
Crydom SSR HeatsinkAnd for the Pentium 4 cooling package, a single 4-40 hole was tapped (note that this image has been flipped horizontally, for aesthetic reasons, so ignore the wire colors):

Pentium 4 CPU Cooler


Alright, so I’m sure you can’t wait to learn how things turned out, right?  Well, without further ado, I present to you my grand table of results:

Heatsink Under Test
Temp @ 10 Mins.
Temp @ 40 Mins.
(Expected Temp)
152°C N/A 58.7°C/W
Clip-On Heatsink 136°C N/A 28.5°C/W
Bolt-On Medium Heatsink 93°C N/A 3.1°C/W
Bolt-On Large Heatsink 78°C N/A 7.5°C/W
Pentium 4 Heatsink 32°C
(no fan)25°C
(fan on)
(no fan)25°C
(fan on)
Crydom SSR Heatsink 28°C 31°C 0.9°C/W

(Note that these test were performed at an ambient temperature of 21°C.  The “Expected Temp” numbers are calculated by multiplying the manufacturer’s ratings by 6W, and then adding the ambient temperature.  Also, the smaller heatsinks were only tested for 10 minutes, as it only took this long for them to reach steady state.  The more massive heatsinks were given 40 minutes.)

So now you may be wondering, “Wait, what happened to the tests with and without the thermal pads in place?”  Well I’ll tell you: the difference in final temperature with and without the pads was insignificant (perhaps one or two degrees at most).  This was a little surprising to me, as I’ve always been told to be liberal with the thermal grease/paste (and these thermal pads serve the same purpose, they’re just cleaner).  So I figured the exposed side of the transistor would be somewhat warmer without the pads in place.  And yet, that does not appear to be the case.  But am I confident enough in this result to stop using thermal paste/pads?  Eh, not really.  I’d probably still use the pads, and I’d make sure the heatsink was firmly attached (since that makes for better conduction).

Another interesting point to note: the snap-on heatsink I tested here performed little better than operation without a sink (it yielded just a 13% lower temperature rise).

Strangely though, the snap-on heatsink was the only one that seemed to measure up to its manufacturer’s °C/W rating.  I calculate a value of (136-21)/6 = 19.2°C/W, which is less than the advertised 28.5°C/W (a good thing).  But neither of the bolt-on heat sinks met their advertised ratings.  The medium-sized sink reached just 12°C/W while the larger one hit 9.5°C/W.  I’m not sure what to make of this.  Is there something I’m missing here?  Perhaps an error in my calculation?  It sure seems straight-forward…

Well finally, I was rather pleased with the performance of the Pentium 4 cooler as well as with the Crydom heatsink.  I did expect both to do well though.  The Socket-478 Pentiums could produce about 60W, so you’d expect even a stock heat sink to be able to handle one-tenth of that power with little problem.  I was amazed at just how quickly turning on the fan brought down the temperature though.  Within just a few minutes the heatsink felt cool to the touch (having just been at about 38°C/100°F).


In light of this data, which of these heatsinks would I choose?  Well, for this transistor, the datasheet lists a maximum operating junction temperature of 175°C.  In the above tests, I’ve measured case temperatures, so we’ll need to factor that in.  Again, the datasheet lists a thermal resistance from junction to case of 3.3°C/W.  So when dissipating 6W, as in the tests above, the junction temperature will be about 20°C warmer than the temperature of the case.  So our maximum allowed case temperature will be 155°C.  You’ll notice that with no heat sink, the transistor reached a temperature of 152°C, so in theory, you could safely operate at 6W with no heatsink at all.  But should you?  No.  For one thing, stuff starts to smell nasty at that temperature.  Plus, continuously running hot will almost certainly reduce the operating life of your transistor.

In general, I’d suggest keeping transistors well below 100°C.  So in this case, I’d be comfortable with either of the two bolt-on heatsinks.  Anything more is overkill.

By the way, here’s a neat article on defacing currency some home-made heat sinks.

So, comments, questions, suggestions?  Feel free to leave them below.  Thanks!

Update (11/24/2011):

Christoph kindly pointed out in the comments section (below) that I’d forgotten to incorporate the dissipation of the TO-220 package itself when predicting case temperature values based on the heatsink specs.  Although not quite half of the transistor’s surface area is attached to the heatsink, the front is still sitting in open air.  Now, the datasheet specifies a thermal resistance of 62°C/W from junction to ambient.  I’m measuring case temperatures, so we need the thermal resistance between case and ambient.  To get this, I need to subtract out the junction to case resistance of 3.3°C/W, for a case to ambient package resistance of 58.7°C/W.

Now, instead of trying to figure out the thermal resistance for just the front of the heatsink (which would just be a guess, really), let’s see what the effect of adding in the transistor datasheet’s full thermal resistance has on our predicted temperatures.

As with electrical resistances, we can determine the combined thermal resistance of the heatsink and transistor by adding them in parallel, as follows:

R_tot = 1/(1/R_transistor + 1/R_heatsink)

Let’s apply this for the clip-on heatsink:

R_tot = 1/(1/58.7 + 1/28.5) = 19.2°C/W.

That’s a pretty big difference!  For 6W, this predicts a temperature of 136.2°C – much less than the 192°C I calculated above, and much closer to my measured value (136°C).  Here is a summary of the new predicted resistances and temperatures (I have NOT yet updated the table above with these new values):

Clip-on Sink: 19.2°C/W, 136°C
Medium Bolt-on Sink: 2.9°C/W, 38°C
Large Bolt-on Sink: 6.7°C/W, 61°C
P4 CPU Cooler: N/A
Crydom Sink: No Effective Difference (the supposed resistance of this heatsink is already so low, adding in the dissipation of the transistor itself makes no noticeable difference)

So making this correction helps with the clip-on sink, but it’s made things worse (at least by comparison with the tested value) for the two bolt-on sinks…

The other adjustment we could make would be to add the case-to-sink resistance of the transistor.  The datasheet lists this value as 0.5°C/W for a flat, greased surface.  Which in this case adds 3°C for 6W.  This could account quite well for the difference in measured values for the Crydom heatsink, but it doesn’t make a huge difference for the others.

Again, these are all pretty much approximations, and as I’ve already admitted, my testing procedure is not terribly accurate.  However, I do believe that it’s still a fairly good relative comparison of these sinks.  If I were measuring the temperatures of the sinks directly, yes, there would be differences in their emissivity, which would affect my IR thermometer.  However, I held the thermometer very close to the transistor and measured the temperature of the same point on the case of the same transistor in all tests.  So I’m not too worried about this.  Again, thanks to all for the comments!

Posted in Test | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

LabVIEW: Using the Mouse Scroll Wheel

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work on a fairly complex LabVIEW application.   It utilizes a number of controls and indicators which have vertical scrollbars (e.g. text boxes and arrays).  This gives users access to a great deal of data without over-crowding the front panel.  Unfortunately, LabVIEW does not natively support scrolling via the mouse wheel.  Well, I happen to like the scroll wheel, and so do many of my users.  So this week I finally went online and found a fairly straight-forward means of implementing this functionality.  You don’t need any crazy DLL calls or APIs; LabVIEW’s “Input Device Control” palette offers this functionality (located under the “Connectivity” section).  I found this particular example very helpful.

I did run into one rather odd problem though.  On my computer, the “Scrolling” value I get using the “Acquire Input Data” block is differential, not absolute.  In other words, when I move the wheel one step, the value of “Scrolling” is 120.  If I scroll no further and poll again, “Scrolling” is back to 0.  However, on the second computer I used to test this function, I received an absolute value.  In other words, if I move the wheel one step, the value of “Scrolling” is 120, but then it remains at 120 until I move the wheel again.  For instance, if I move the wheel by one additional step, “Scrolling” is now 240; the overall value is cumulative (an absolute position).

To combat this problem, I came up with a fairly simple (but not exactly elegant) algorithm that attempts to detect the mouse type based on the first few values of “Scrolling.”  If the absolute value of this parameter ever exceeds 3000, we assume the mouse is of the “absolute” variety.  Otherwise, if we’ve seen this value change more than 10 times without exceeding 3000, we assume it is of the “incremental” variety.  Until these 10 changes are seen, all scroll input is ignored.  This can be a bit frustrating, since the first time a user attempts to scroll something, they’ll have to move the wheel for a second or two before the GUI responds.  However, in the case of my application, I then store the mouse type in the registry, so that the next time the program is launched, the scroll wheel is immediately functional.  No big deal.  If anyone out there has better ideas though, feel free to let me know!

Anyway, you can click on the block diagram below to get a larger view of a quick demo application I built.  This demo shows how you might use the scroll wheel to control text boxes, arrays, sliders, and even graph axis scaling.  You can also download the example ZIP file below.  Feel free to leave comments or questions below.  Thanks!

LabVIEW Scroll Wheel Example - Block Diagram

LabVIEW Scroll Wheel Example - Front Panel

Download: scrollwheel_example.zip (85KB)

Posted in Tutorials/Educational, Work | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment