Client Profile: Digi International, Inc

Contact: Elizabeth Presson
elizabeth.presson@digi.com

Featured Product: The XBee product family (www.digi.com/xbee) is a series of modular products that make adding wireless technology easy and cost-effective. Whether you need a ZigBee module or a fast multipoint solution, 2.4 GHz or long-range 900 MHz—there’s an XBee to meet your specific requirements.

XBee Cloud Kit

Digi International XBee Cloud Kit

Product information: Digi now offers the XBee Wi-Fi Cloud Kit (www.digi.com/xbeewificloudkit) for those who want to try the XBee Wi-Fi (XB2B-WFUT-001) with seamless cloud connectivity. The Cloud Kit brings the Internet of Things (IoT) to the popular XBee platform. Built around Digi’s new XBee Wi-Fi
module, which fully integrates into the Device Cloud by Etherios, the kit is a simple way for anyone with an interest in M2M and the IoT to build a hardware prototype and integrate it into an Internet-based application. This kit is suitable for electronics engineers, software designers, educators, and innovators.

Exclusive Offer: The XBee Wi-Fi Cloud Kit includes an XBee Wi-Fi module; a development board with a variety of sensors and actuators; loose electronic prototyping parts to make circuits of your own; a free subscription to Device Cloud; fully customizable widgets to monitor and control connected devices; an open-source application that enables two-way communication and control with the development board over the Internet; and cables, accessories, and everything needed to connect to the web. The Cloud Kit costs $149.

Reduce EMI on a Micro (EE Tip #109)

Electromagnetic interference (EMI) on a typical microprocessor board is related to the clock. If the clock is a square wave, it contains frequencies at the clock frequency and harmonics. A perfect square wave clock would have harmonic frequencies at f, 3 × f, 5 × f, 7 × f, and so on. For a perfect square wave, or any string of pulses with a fast rise time, the strength of the harmonics declines inversely with frequency.

So, the eleventh harmonic would be one-eleventh as strong as the fundamental frequency. This corresponds to a decline in harmonic amplitude of 20 dB per decade.

Real time clocks are not perfect square waves, and pulses do not have infinitely fast rise times. As a result, the higher harmonics of any real waveform start dropping faster than 1/n at higher frequencies, generally dropping as 1/(n2), or 40 dB per decade, after the frequency is high enough.

You can see this in Figure 1. The antenna efficiency of PC board structures or cables increases 20 dB per decade as frequency increases and wavelength gets shorter and closer to the size of structures found on typical PC boards.

Figure 1—Here you can see the sources of EMI in a typical microprocessor and the resulting spectrum.

Figure 1: Here you can see the sources of EMI in a typical microprocessor and the resulting spectrum.

As a result, the beginning part of the radiated spectrum tends to be uniform, the 20 dB per decade decline in harmonic strength being balanced by the 20 dB per decade increase in antenna efficiency, until a high enough frequency is reached where the curve takes a bend and harmonics start declining at 40 dB per decade zone (see Figure 1).

Above this frequency, the radiated spectrum starts declining by 20 dB per octave. But, the amplitudes of the real harmonics of a real device are often quite irregular because of resonances that weaken some and reinforce others.

What is not usually understood is that the biggest source of EMI is not the clock directly, but a train of pulses generated on both edges of the clock when current surges into the microprocessor for a nanosecond or two when the clock transitions up or down. This pulse train has a frequency that’s double the clock frequency. It seeps out of the processor chip into the power supplies and generally infects the board with high-frequency EMI. It also gets into the output lines emanating from the processor package; therefore, it’s further spread around the board and to cables and devices connected to the board.

The current surges on both clock edges are related to the clock tree. The clock tree is a system consisting of a branching network of buffers that distribute the internal clock around the silicon die. Because these buffers drive considerable capacitance and have both polarities of the clock present, there is a surge of current on both edges of the clock. This occurs as current flows into the chip to charge up the capacitance in the part of the clock tree that is transitioning from 0 V to the power supply voltage. On-chip devices, such as flip-flops, also contain internal gates and buffers where both polarities of the clock are present and contribute to the current surge.

An additional current surge is related to the crossover current when both the N and P transistors in a CMOS buffer are momentarily conducting during a logic transition. The silicon chip tries to suck in the required current to service these fast transients through its power supply pins. However, these connections have inductance created by the bond wires and lead frame, so the voltage drops briefly on the die, creating an on-chip power supply voltage drop with an amplitude on the order of a few tenths of a volt and the duration of a nanosecond or so.

If this same on-chip power supply drives the output buffers that carry signal lines out of the chip, these lines will also be infected with the fast pulses present in the power and ground supplies. This is because the power supply noise is directly transmitted through the buffer power inputs to the output lines. The on-chip current surges create fast noise that passes out through the power supply pins to the power and ground planes on the PC board, further spreading the infection.

The amplitude of the harmonics of the periodic noise pulses, at least at lower frequencies, declines inversely with frequency (1/f). Unfortunately, the effectiveness of a short antenna, such as a PC board trace, increases directly with frequency (~f). The result is that the radiated EMI tends to be flat across the spectrum.

Fortunately, the amplitude of the harmonics starts declining more rapidly than 1/f; it’s more like 1/(f2) at some higher frequency determined by the finite rise time of the pulses in the pulse train. The balance of these countervailing effects is such that the most trouble is often found in the area of 100 to 300 MHz for lower-speed 8- and 16-bit microprocessor boards.

Decoupling capacitors and the intrinsic capacitance of the power and ground planes can be used to short circuit or filter noise on the power supply. However, this technique loses effectiveness above 100 MHz, because the decoupling capacitors have inductance of about 1 nH, giving an effective resistance of about 0.5 Ω at 200 MHz. The large currents involved will develop millivolt-level voltages across such capacitors.

REDUCTION TRICK #1

The problem of noise on the I/O lines of a processor can be addressed with two sets of power supply pins. One set is used for the processor core; the other is for the output drivers that are located in the I/O ring on the periphery of the die (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The connection of separate power and ground pins for the core and I/O ring of a processor is shown here. A PC board filter blocks core noise from power planes. You can also see how I/O buffers spread power supply noise.

Figure 2: The connection of separate power and ground pins for the core and I/O ring
of a processor is shown here. A PC board filter blocks core noise from power planes.
You can also see how I/O buffers spread power supply noise.

If the I/O buffers are supplied with the same power that is made dirty by the fast transients in the processor core, every output pin of the processor will spread EMI. The EMI that tries to come out of the power pins for the core can be blocked by a combination of decoupling capacitors and PC board trace inductance. This keeps the PC board power planes a relatively clean source of power for the processor I/O ring. The design team figured this feature decreases EMI amplitudes by 10 dB, which is a factor of three in EMI electrical field strength measured by the prescribed calibrated antenna. This is a lot because it’s common to flunk the tests by 5 dB.

REDUCTION TRICK #2

Most microprocessors have I/O and memory devices connected to the same bus with distinct control signals for the devices. Generally, there is a lot more activity at a higher frequency for the memory devices. For instance, a Digi International Rabbit 3000 microprocessor has an option to use separate pins for memory and I/O devices, both address and data. The advantage is that the physical scope of the high-speed memory bus is limited to the memory devices. A separate address and data bus handles I/O cycles and has a much lower average operating frequency. In particular, the address lines toggle only during I/O bus cycles, greatly limiting the emissions from the I/O bus. This avoids the situation where the fast-toggling address and data lines of the memory bus have to be run all over the printed circuit board of a large system. This scheme also limits the capacitive loading on the memory bus, which does not have to extend to numerous I/O devices.

REDUCTION TRICK #3

A line spectrum is the spectrum generated by a square wave clock or by a train of short pulses. All of the energy is concentrated in a narrow spectral line at the harmonic frequencies.

When the FCC EMI measurement tests are performed, the spectrum analyzer measures the amplitude of the signal from a 120-kHz wide filter that is swept across the frequencies of interest. With a line spectrum, all of the energy in a single line passes through the filter, resulting in a strong signal. If the energy in the line could be spread out over a wider frequency, say 5 MHz, only one-fortieth the energy would pass through the 120-kHz wide filter, considerably reducing the reading (by 16 dB in amplitude for one fortieth of the energy). This is what a clock spectrum spreader does. It modulates the clock frequency by a little so as to smear out the spectral line in frequency.

The idea to do this for the purpose of reducing EMI was patented by Bell Labs in two patents during the 1960s. There are numerous ways to modulate the clock frequency. One method is to use a voltage-controlled oscillator and phase-lock loop so that the frequency sweeps back and forth at a low modulation rate (e.g., 50 kHz).

Another method is to insert random delays or dithers into the clock. These methods are all covered in the original Bell Labs patents. The Bell Labs people were probably interested in EMI because telephone switches involve a large amount of equipment in a small space. In addition, it’s conceivable that the early computerized switches suffered from EMI problems. We installed a clock spectrum spreader in the Rabbit 3000 based on a combination of digital and analog techniques. The spectrum spreader reduces FCC-style EMI readings by around 20 dB, which is a lot.

A control system makes sure that the modulated clock edge is never in error by more than 20 ns compared to where the clock edge would be if it were not modulated. This prevents disruption in serial communications or other timing functions. For example, a UART operating at 460,000 bps can tolerate about 500 ns of clock edge error before it will be near to generating errors. This is far less than our 20-ns worst error in clock edge position.—Circuit Cellar 146, Norman Rogers, “Killing the EMI Demon,” 2002.

This piece originally appeared in Circuit Cellar 146, 2002. Author: Norman Rogers, who was President of ZWorld, Inc. and Rabbit Semiconductor.

Member Profile: Scott Weber

Scott Weber

Scott Weber

LOCATION:
Arlington, Texas, USA

MEMBER STATUS:
Scott said he started his Circuit Cellar subscription late in the last century. He chose the magazine because it had the right mix of MCU programming and electronics.

TECH INTERESTS:
He has always enjoyed mixing discrete electronic projects with MCUs. In the early 1980s, he built a MCU board based on an RCA CDP1802 with wirewrap and programmed it with eight switches and a load button.

Back in the 1990s, Scott purchased a Microchip Technology PICStart Plus. “I was thrilled at how powerful and comprehensive the chip and tools were compared to the i8085 and CDP1802 devices I tinkered with years before,” he said.

RECENT EMBEDDED TECH ACQUISITION:
Scott said he recently treated himself to a brand-new Fluke 77-IV multimeter.

CURRENT PROJECTS:
Scott is building devices that can communicate through USB to MS Windows programs. “I don’t have in mind any specific system to control, it is something to learn and have fun with,” he said. “This means learning not only an embedded USB software framework, but also Microsoft Windows device drivers.”

THOUGHTS ON THE FUTURE OF EMBEDDED TECH:
“Embedded devices are popping up everywhere—in places most people don’t even realize they are being used. It’s fun discovering where they are being applied. It is so much easier to change the microcode of an MCU or FPGA as the unit is coming off the assembly line than it is to rewire a complex circuit design,” Scott said.

“I also like Member Profile Joe Pfeiffer’s final comment in Circuit Cellar 276: Surface-mount and ASIC devices are making a ‘barrier to entry’ for the hobbyist. You can’t breadboard those things! I gotta learn a good way to make my own PCBs!”

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.

Example

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.

3-D Printing with Liquid Metals

by Collin Ladd and Michael Dickey

Our research group at North Carolina State University has been studying new ways to use simple processes to print liquid metals into 3-D shapes at room temperature. 3-D printing is gaining popularity because of the ability to quickly go from concept to reality to design, replicate, or create objects. For example, it is now possible to draw an object on a computer or scan a physical object into software and have a highly detailed replica within a few hours.

3-D printing with liquid metals: a line of dollsMost 3-D printers currently pattern plastics, but printing metal objects is of particular interest because of metal’s physical strength and electrical conductivity. Because of the difficulty involved with metal printing, it is considered one of the “frontiers” of 3-D printing.
There are several approaches for 3-D printing of metals, but they all have limitations, including high temperatures (making it harder to co-print with other materials) and prohibitively expensive equipment. The most popular approach to printing metals is to use lasers or electron beams to sinter fine metal powders together at elevated temperatures, one layer at a time, to form solid metal parts.

Our approach uses a simple method to enable direct printing of liquid metals at room temperature. We print liquid metal alloys primarily composed of gallium. These alloys have metallic conductivity and a viscosity similar to water. Unlike mercury, gallium is not considered toxic nor does it evaporate. We extrude this metal from a nozzle to create droplets that can be stacked to form 3-D structures. Normally, two droplets of liquid (e.g., water) merge together into a single drop if stacked on each other. However, these metal droplets do not succumb to surface-tension effects because the metal rapidly forms a solid oxide “skin” on its surface that mechanically stabilizes the printed structures. This skin also makes it possible to extrude wires or metal fibers.

This printing process is important for two reasons. First, it enables the printing of metallic structures at room temperature using a process that is compatible with other printed materials (e.g., plastics). Second, it results in metal structures that can be used for flexible and stretchable electronics.

 

Stretchable electronics are motivated by the new applications that emerge by building electronic functionality on deformable substrates. It may enable new wearable sensors and textiles that deform naturally with the human body, or even an elastic array of embedded sensors that could serve as a substitute for skin on a prosthetic or robot-controlled fingertip. Unlike the bendable polyimide-based circuits commonly seen on a ribbon cable or inside a digital camera, stretchable electronics require more mechanical robustness, which may involve the ability to deform like a rubber band. However, a stretchable device need not be 100% elastic. Solid components embedded in a substrate (e.g., silicone) can be incorporated into a stretchable device if the connections between them can adequately deform.

Using our approach, we can direct print freestanding wire bonds or circuit traces to directly connect components—without etching or solder—at room temperature. Encasing these structures in polymer enables these interconnects to be stretched tenfold without losing electrical conductivity. Liquid metal wires also have been shown to be self-healing, even after being completely severed. Our group has demonstrated several applications of the liquid metal in soft, stretchable components including deformable antennas, soft-memory devices, ultra-stretchable wires, and soft optical components.

Although our approach is promising, there are some notable limitations. Gallium alloys are expensive and the price is expected to rise due to gallium’s expanding industrial use. Nevertheless, it is possible to print microscale structures without using much volume, which helps keep the cost down per component. Liquid metal structures must also be encased in a polymer substrate because they are not strong enough to stand by themselves for rugged applications.

Our current work is focused on optimizing this process and exploring new material possibilities for 3-D printing. We hope advancements will enable users to print new embedded electronic components that were previously challenging or impossible to construct using a 3-D printer.

Collin Ladd (claddc4@gmail.com)  is pursuing a career in medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. Since 2009, he has been the primary researcher for the 3-D printed liquid metals project at The Dickey Group, which is headed by Michael Dickey. Collin’s interests include circuit board design and robotics. He has been an avid electronics hobbyist since high school.

Collin Ladd (claddc4@gmail.com) is pursuing a career in medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. Since 2009, he has been the primary researcher for the 3-D printed liquid metals project at The Dickey Group, which is headed by Michael Dickey. Collin’s interests include circuit board design and robotics. He has been an avid electronics hobbyist since high school.

Michael Dickey (mddickey@ncsu.edu) is an associate professor at the North Carolina State University Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. His research includes studying soft materials, thin films and interfaces, and unconventional nanofabrication techniques. His research group’s projects include stretchable electronics, patterning gels, and self-folding sheets.

Michael Dickey (mddickey@ncsu.edu) is an associate professor at the North Carolina State University Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. His research includes studying soft materials, thin films and interfaces, and unconventional nanofabrication techniques. His research group’s projects include stretchable electronics, patterning gels, and self-folding sheets.