About C. J. Abate

C. J. Abate is Circuit Cellar's Editor in Chief. You can reach him at cabate@circuitcellar.com and @editor_cc.

Electronics Grounding (EE Tip #107)

Whether you are professional electrical engineer or part-time DIYer, before you start your next project, read through this primer on grounding. This short survey covers one of the most fundamental topics in electronics: grounding.

Electronics Signal Ground or Circuit Common

Signal ground is the current return to the power supply. Current leaves the power supply, passes through the various electronic components, and then returns to the supply. The typical symbol for signal ground is shown in Figure 1.EE107-F1-2

 Chassis Ground or Earth Ground

Chassis ground is an electrical safety requirement to prevent an electrical or electronic device’s chassis from delivering an electrical shock. A long copper rod is driven into the ground outside of the building, and a wire connects the metal chassis to the rod which is at the approximate 0 V potential of the earth. The symbol for earth ground is shown in Figure 2.

Ground Details

Consider the following two details about ground. First, ground is not exactly 0 V. And second, two physically different ground points will not be at the same voltage potential.

Ground Loop

By definition, current will flow in an electrical conductor connected to a difference in voltage potential between two points. Because two physically different ground points are not at the same potential, current will flow through an electrical conductor connected between those two points. This is a ground loop.

Notice this current flowing between these two different ground points is not related to or correlated to any electronic data or message signal. This is noise or garbage that will interfere and distort any information contained in the electronic system.

Note: While “noise” can be added to systems on occasion, it is specifically controlled and the exact quantity is regulated.


Given: A ground loop producing 610 μV of ground noise. It’s a very small quantity. You have a 16-bit A/D converter with a 0- to 10-V input. The smallest voltage it can resolve is:

= 10 V/16 exp 2

= 10 V/65,536

= 152.5ìV

Note that the ground loop noise is four times greater than the actual data, so that A/D converter loses two bits of resolution, and it is now a 14-bit converter.

Connect with Single-Ended/Unbalanced Amps

In Figure 3 the two grounds exist at different potentials, so some current will flow between the grounds. EE107-F3

This ground current has nothing to do with any signals being amplified, and it is noise decreasing the accuracy of the system. Figure 4 is a complete schematic.EE107-F4

Connect with Transformers

When connecting with transformers, keep the following in mind:

  • There is no ground connection, so there can be no Ground Loop.
  • Common-mode rejection of RF interference.
  • Signals are AC coupled, so of limited use for circuits with DC data such as accelerator focus and bend magnets (see Figure 5).EE107-F5

Connect with Differential Amps

Refer to Figure 6 for connecting two systems with differential amplifiers.

  • There is no ground connection, so there can be no Ground Loop.
  • Common-mode rejection of RF interference (see Figure 7).
  • Signals are DC coupled, so this is the perfect solution for circuits with DC data.EE107-F6EE107-F7

—Dennis Hoffman

Note: This article first appeared in audioXpress  (June 2011). It is from a class that Dennis Hoffman teaches at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (Menlo Park, CA). Like Circuit Cellar, audioXpress is Elektor International Media Publication.

Programmable Logic Video Lessons

Interested in learning more about programmable logic? You’re in luck. Colin O’Flynn’s first article in his “Programmable Logic in Practice” column appears in Circuit Cellar’s October 2013 issue. To accompany his work, Colin is producing informative videos for you to view after reading his articles.

In the first video, Colin covers the topic of adding the Xilinx ChipScope ILA/VIO core using automatic and manual insertion with ISE.


Since 2002, Circuit Cellar has published several of O’Flynn’s articles. O’Flynn  is an engineer and lecturer at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He earned a Master’s in applied science from Dalhousie and pursued further graduate studies in cryptographic systems. Over the years, he has developed a wide variety of skills ranging from electronic assembly (including SMDs) to FPGA design in Verilog and VHDL to high-speed PCB design.

Embedded Sensor Innovation at MIT

During his June 5 keynote address at they 2013 Sensors Expo in Chicago, Joseph Paradiso presented details about some of the innovative embedded sensor-related projects at the MIT Media Lab, where he is the  Director of the Responsive Environments Group. The projects he described ranged from innovative ubiquitous computing installations for monitoring building utilities to a small sensor network that transmits real-time data from a peat bog in rural Massachusetts. Below I detail a few of the projects Paradiso covered in his speech.


Managed by the Responsive Enviroments group, the DoppelLab is a virtual environment that uses Unity 3D to present real-time data from numerous sensors in MIT Media Lab complex.

The MIT Responsive Environments Group’s DoppleLab

Paradiso explained that the system gathers real-time information and presents it via an interactive browser. Users can monitor room temperature, humidity data, RFID badge movement, and even someone’s Tweets has he moves throughout the complex.

Living Observatory

Paradiso demoed the Living Observatory project, which comprises numerous sensor nodes installed in a peat bog near Plymouth, MA. In addition to transmitting audio from the bog, the installation also logs data such as temperature, humidity, light, barometric pressure, and radio signal strength. The data logs are posted on the project site, where you can also listen to the audio transmission.

The Living Observatory (Source: http://tidmarsh.media.mit.edu/)


The GesturesEverywhere project provides a real-time data stream about human activity levels within the MIT Media Lab. It provides the following data and more:

  • Activity Level: you can see the Media Labs activity level over a seven-day period.
  • Presence Data: you can see the location of ID tags as people move in the building

The following video is a tracking demo posted on the project site.

The aforementioned projects are just a few of the many cutting-edge developments at the MIT Media Lab. Paradiso said the projects show how far ubiquitous computing technology has come. And they provide a glimpse into the future. For instance, these technologies lend themselves to a variety of building-, environment-, and comfort-related applications.

“In the early days of ubiquitous computing, it was all healthcare,” Paradiso said. “The next frontier is obviously energy.”

Embedded Wireless Made Simple

Last week at the 2013 Sensors Expo in Chicago, Anaren had interesting wireless embedded control systems on display. The message was straightforward: add an Anaren Integrated Radio (AIR) module to an embedded system and you’re ready to go wireless.

Bob Frankel demos embedded mobile control

Bob Frankel of Emmoco provided a embedded mobile control demonstration. By adding an AIR module to a light control system, he was able to use a tablet as a user interface.

The Anaren 2530 module in a light control system (Source: Anaren)

In a separate demonstration, Anaren electrical engineer Mihir Dani showed me how to achieve effective light control with an Anaren 2530 module and TI technology. The module is embedded within the light and compact remote enables him to manipulate variables such as light color and saturation.

Visit Anaren’s website for more information.

Open-Source Hardware for the Efficient Economy

In the open-source hardware development and distribution model, designs are created collaboratively and published openly. This enables anyone to study, modify, improve, and produce the design—for one’s own use or for sale. Open-source hardware gives users full control over the products they use while unleashing innovation—compared to the limits of proprietary research and development.

This practice is transforming passive consumers of “black box” technologies into a new breed of user-producers. For consumers, open-source hardware translates into better products at a lower cost, while providing more relevant, directly applicable solutions compared to a one-size-fits-all approach. For producers, it means lower barriers to entry and a consequent democratization of production. The bottom line is a more efficient economy—one that bypasses the artificial scarcity created by exclusive rights—and instead focuses on better and faster development of appropriate technologies.

Open-source hardware is less than a decade old. It started as an informal practice in the early 2000s with fragmented cells of developers sharing instructions for producing physical objects in the spirit of open-source software. It has now become a movement with a recognized definition, specific licenses, an annual conference, and several organizations to support open practices. The expansion of open-source hardware is also visible in a proliferation of open-source plans for making just about anything, from 3-D printers, microcontrollers, and scientific equipment, to industrial machines, cars, tractors, and solar-power generators.

As the movement takes shape, the next major milestone is the development of standards for efficient development and quality documentation. The aim here is to deliver on the potential of open-source products to meet or exceed industry standards—at a much lower cost—while scaling the impact of collaborative development practices.

The Internet brought about the information revolution, but an accompanying revolution in open-source product development has yet to happen. The major blocks are the absence of uniform standards for design, documentation, and development process; accessible collaborative design platforms (CAD); and a unifying set of interface standards for module-based design—such that electronics, mechanical devices, controllers, power units, and many other types of modules could easily interface with one another.

Can unleashed collaboration catapult open-source hardware from its current multimillion dollar scale to the next trillion dollar economy?

One of the most promising scenarios for the future of open source hardware is a global supply chain made up of thousands of interlinked organizations in which collaboration and complementarity are the norm. In this scenario, producers at all levels—from hobbyists to commercial manufacturers—have access to transparent fabrication tools, and digital plans circulate freely, enabling them to build on each other quickly and efficiently.

The true game changers are the fabrication machines that transform designs into objects. While equipment such as laser cutters, CNC machine tools, and 3-D printers has been around for decades, the breakthrough comes from the drastically reduced cost and increased access to these tools. For example, online factories enable anyone to upload a design and receive the material object in the mail a few days later. A proliferation of open-source digital fabrication tools, hackerspaces, membership-based shops, fab labs, micro factories, and other collaborative production facilities are drastically increasing access and reducing the cost of production. It has become commonplace for a novice to gain ready access to state-of-art productive power.

On the design side, it’s now possible for 70 engineers to work in parallel with a collaborative CAD package to design the airplane wing for a Boeing 767 in 1 hour. This is a real-world proof of concept of taking development to warp speed—though achieved with proprietary tools and highly paid engineers. With a widely available, open-source collaborative CAD package and digital libraries of design for customization, it would be possible for even a novice to create advanced machines—and for a large group of novices to create advanced machines at warp speed. Complex devices, such as cars, can be modeled with an inviting set of Lego-like building blocks in a module-based CAD package. Thereafter, CNC equipment can be used to produce these designs from off-the-shelf parts and locally available materials. Efficient industrial production could soon be at anyone’s fingertips.

Sharing instructions for making things is not a novel idea. However, the formal establishment of an open-source approach to the development and production of critical technologies is a disruptive force. The potential lies in the emergence of many significant and scalable enterprises built on top of this model. If such entities collaborate openly, it becomes possible to unleash the efficiency of global development based on free information flows. This implies a shift from “business as usual” to an efficient economy in which environmental and social justice are part of the equation.


Catarina Mota is a New York City-based Portuguese maker and open-source advocate who cofounded the openMaterials (openMaterials.org) research project, which is focused on open-source and DIY experimentation with smart materials. She is both a PhD candidate at FCSHUNL and a visiting scholar at NYU, and she has taught workshops on topics such as hi-tech materials and simple circuitry. Catarina is a fellow of the National Science and Technology Foundation of Portugal, co-chair of the Open Hardware Summit, a TEDGlobal 2012 fellow, and member of NYC Resistor.

Marcin Jakubowski graduated from Princeton and earned a PhD Fusion Physics from the University of Wisconsin. In 2003 Marcin founded the Open Source Ecology (OpenSourceEcology.org) network of engineers, farmers, and supporters. The group is working on the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS), which is an open-source, DIY toolset of 50 different industrial machines intended for the construction of a modern civilization (http://vimeo.com/16106427).

This essay appears in Circuit Cellar 271, February 2013.