Archive for June, 2012

Transistors – Digital Control Interface, Part II

Sunday, June 24th, 2012
     Not too long ago I was retained as an engineering expert to testify on behalf of a plaintiff who owned a sports bar.  The place was filled with flat screen televisions that were plugged into 120 volt alternating current (VAC) wall outlets.  To make a long story short, the electric utility wires that fed power to the bar were hit by a passing vehicle, causing the voltage in the outlets to increase well beyond what the electronics in the televisions could handle.  The delicate electronics were not suited to be connected with the high voltage that suddenly surged through them as a result of the hit, and they overloaded and failed.

     Similarly, lower voltage microprocessor and digital logic chips are also not suited to directly connect with higher voltage devices like motors, electrical relays, and light bulbs.  An interface between the two is needed to keep the delicate electronic circuits in the chips from overloading and failing like the ill fated televisions in my client’s sports bar.  Let’s look now at how a field effect transistor (FET) acts as the interface between low and high voltages when put into operation within an industrial product.

     I was once asked to design an industrial product, a machine which developed medical x-ray films, utilizing a microprocessor chip to automate its operation.  The design requirements stated that the product be powered by a 120 VAC, such as that available through the nearest wall outlet.  In terms of functionality, upon startup the microprocessor chip was to be programmed to first perform a 40-minute warmup of the machine, then activate a 12 volt direct current (VDC) buzzer for two seconds, signaling that it was ready for use.  This sequence was to be initiated by a human operator depressing an activation button.

     The problem presented by this scenario was that the microprocessor chip manufacturer designed it to operate on a mere 5 VDC.  In additional, it was equipped with a digital output lead that was limited in functionality to either “on” or “off” and capable of only supplying either extreme of 0 VDC or 5 VDC, not the 12 VDC required by the buzzer.

     Figure 1 illustrates my solution to this voltage problem, although the diagram shown presents a highly simplified version of the end solution.

microprocessor control

Figure 1

     The illustration shows the initial power supplied at the upper left to be 120 VAC.  This then is converted down to 5 VDC and 12 VDC respectively by a power supply circuit. The 5 VDC powers the microprocessor chip and the 12 VDC powers the buzzer.  The conversion from high 120 VAC voltage to low 5 and 12 VDC voltage is accomplished through the use of a transformer, a diode bridge, and special transistors that regulate voltage.  Since this article is about FETs, we’ll discuss transistor power supplies in more depth in a future article.

     To make things a little easier to follow, the diagram in Figure 1 shows the microprocessor chip with only one input lead and one output lead.  In actuality a microprocessor chip can have dozens of input and output leads, as was the case in my solution.  The input leads collect information from sensors, switches, and other electrical components for processing and decision making by the computer program contained within the chip.  Output leads then send out commands in the form of digital signals that are either 0 VDC or 5 VDC.  In other words, off or on.  The net result is that these signals are turned off or on by the program’s decision making process.

     Figure 1 shows the input lead is connected to a pushbutton activated by a human.  The output lead is connected to the gate (G) of the FET.  The FET is shown in symbolic form in green. The FET drain (D) lead is connected to the buzzer and its source (S) lead terminates in connection to electrical ground to complete the electrical circuit.  Remember, electric current naturally likes to flow from the supply source to electrical ground within circuits, and our scenario is no exception.

     Next time we’ll see what happens when someone presses the button to put everything into action.


Transistors – Digital Control Interface, Part I

Monday, June 18th, 2012
     In the navy, the captain is the brains behind a ship’s operations.  He gathers information, makes important decisions, then issues orders.  He’s not there to roll up his sleeves and swab the decks.  The captain relies on the ship’s officers to act as an interface between himself and the sailors that perform the physical labor required on deck.

     In this article we’ll see how the FET, that is, the field effect transistor, performs much the same role as the ship’s officers when it is used within electronic controls.  There it acts as an interface between electronic components that issue commands and the electrical devices that carry them out.

     Last week we became familiar with field effect transistors and how their control of electrical current flow is analogous to how a faucet controls the flow of water.  Although FETs can be used to vary the flow of current, they’re usually employed to perform a much simpler task, that of simply turning flow on or off, with no in-between modality.

     Like the captain of a ship, microprocessor and logic chips are the brains behind the operation in all sorts of industrial and consumer electronics.  Figure 1 shows a few of them.

Digital Chips

Figure 1


     The chips, which operate on low voltage, contain entire computer programs within them that gather information, make decisions, then instruct the higher voltage devices like motors, electrical relays, light bulbs, and audible alarms to follow.  By “information,” I mean data signals received by the chip from its input connections to sensors, buttons, and other electrical components.  This data informs the chip’s computer program of important operational information, like whether buttons have been pressed, switches are activated, and temperatures are normal.  Based on this data, “decisions” are made by the chip using the logic contained within its program, then, depending on the decisions made, “commands” are issued by the chip.  The commands, in the form of electrical output signals, are put into action by the work horses, the higher voltage devices.  They, like a ship’s sailors, perform the actual physical work.

     There is one problem presented by this scenario, however.  The electric output signals from the lower voltage chips are not suited to directly control the higher voltage devices because the signal voltage put out by the chips is too low.  Even if the chip was designed to work at a higher voltage, the high level of current drawn by the motors, relays, and bulbs would lead to damage of the delicate circuitry within the chip.  The chips must therefore rely on the FET to act as a digital control interface between them and the higher voltage devices, much as the ship’s captain depends on his subordinates to carry out his orders.

     Next week we’ll look at a real life example of how a digital interface is put into operation within an industrial product.



Sunday, June 10th, 2012

     Back in the 60s my dad spent about $25 to buy a small transistor radio.  That was a lot of money in those days, but well worth it.  The new transistor technology allowed for a much less cumbersome radio to be produced.  No more lugging around big radios armed with heavy vacuum tubes.  In the years that followed the word transistor became a household word.  They were employed in a variety of ways within televisions and other electronic devices, increasing both their reliability and functionality.

     So what is a transistor and what does it do?  It’s an electronic component, developed in the late 1940s.  The first transistor was about as big as a softball and crudely made.  As such, it was too impractical for commercial use.  Then in the l950s technological advancements made commercial production of smaller, high-quality transistors possible.  Transistors enjoyed widespread introduction to the consuming mainstream in the l960s, and since then they’ve been made in many different types, shapes, and sizes.  Some are shown in Figure 1 below.


Figure 1


     A commonly used type of transistor is called a field effect transistor, or FET, one of which is shown in Figure 2.  The FET has three metal leads which allow it to be connected into electrical circuits.  These leads are referred to as the drain (D), the source (S), and the gate (G).

Figure 2


     FET’s control the flow of current within an electronic circuit.  A good way to understand what they do is to consider the analogy of water flowing through a faucet.

Transistor Faucet Analogy

Figure 3


    Figure 3 shows a faucet, complete with valve and handle.  With the valve closed the flow of water is completely shut off.  If the valve is opened partway by rotation of the handle, a trickle of water emerges.  The more the handle is turned and valve is opened, the greater the flow of water. 

     The FET shown in Figure 4 operates a lot like a faucet, but with regard to electrical current.


Figure 4


     The FET controls the flow of current flowing through its D and S leads, but it does not employ a valve or handle to do it.  Rather, flow rate is controlled by application of a small amount of voltage to the G lead.  The voltage’s influence on the G lead influences the FET to permit current to flow in through the D lead, then out through the S lead.  The amount of voltage applied to the G lead is directly related to how much current will be allowed to flow.  

     In this example the D lead on the FET is connected to a 10 volt direct current (VDC) power supply.  The S lead is connected to a flashlight bulb which is connected to electrical ground.  If you will remember from previous blogs, electric current naturally wants to flow from the supply source to ground, much like water wants to naturally flow downhill.

     If the bulb was connected directly to the 10 VDC power supply, current would flow through unimpeded and the bulb would light.  However, in Figure 4 the FET acts as a regulating device.  It’s connected between the 10 VDC power supply and the bulb.  When no voltage is applied to the G lead the FET acts like a closed valve and current is unable to flow.  Without current we, of course, have no light.

     When a low amount of voltage, say one volt, is applied to the G lead, the FET acts like a partially opened valve.  It permits a trickle of current to flow from the 10 VDC supply to the bulb, and the bulb glows dimly.  As voltage to G increases the FET valve opens further, permitting more current to flow.  The bulb glows with increasing brightness.

     When the voltage applied to G increases to the point the FET valve is opened fully, in our example that is 2 volts, full current is allowed to flow from the 10 VDC supply to the bulb.  The bulb glows brightly.  Generally speaking, the voltage required to be applied to G for control of current flow through an FET depends on overall design and the particular application within an electrical circuit. 

     FETs are often used within electronic devices to turn things on and off, with no other function in between.  Next time we’ll look at some example circuits to see how it’s done.    


Mechanical Power Transmission – Centrifugal Clutch Shoe Wear

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

     My first car was a used 1963 Dodge 880.   It was reliable for the most part, but one day when I stepped on the brake in a supermarket parking lot, nothing happened.  I began to roll down an incline, and I struggled to steer around the maze of parked cars in the lot.  After what seemed to be an eternity I managed to navigate my way out of the lot into an adjacent cornfield.  The soft ground and corn stalks finally brought me to a stop.  I later discovered that the reason my brakes failed is because their linings had completely worn away.

     Like the brakes in cars, centrifugal clutch shoes also have linings as shown in Figure 1.  Brake linings are typically made of a rough, high friction materials, such as ceramic compounds. These materials are bonded to the brake shoes, or in the case of clutches, to the clutch shoes.  When centrifugal force comes into play, pressing the clutch shoes against the inside wall of the clutch housing, the roughness of the linings provides a good grip, preventing slippage between the shoes and the housing.

clutch shoe lining

Figure 1


     As we learned in previous articles, slip between the clutch shoes and clutch housings can create problems.  In our grass trimmer for example, we learned that slippage reduces the amount of power the engine can effectively transmit to the cutter head.  It also tends to produce a lot of heat.  This heat can adversely effect the clutch springs and cause clutch failure.

     Although the high friction lining of the clutch shoes prevents most slippage, it can still occur, as when the throttle is depressed and engine speed increases beyond idle.  There is some slipping as the clutch shoes first engage with the clutch housing, and it will continue until the engine speed increases to the point where centrifugal force causes the clutch shoes to firmly press into the clutch housing.

     Slippage also occurs when gasoline powered tools are subjected to operating stress.  Figure 2 shows two views of a chainsaw.  The first view is complete, the second shows the chain and clutch housing in isolation.

chainsaw and saw chain

Figure 2


     With the engine housing removed, we see that the saw chain is connected to a sprocket located on the centrifugal clutch housing.  This sprocket is similar to those that engage the chains on bicycle wheels.

     Now suppose someone decides to use the chainsaw to cut a green, sap-filled log.  To make matters worse, let’s suppose the chainsaw has a dull saw chain.  If you’ve ever tried doing this, you know that the sticky, sappy wood will eventually gum up the chain and stop it from moving.  Since the chain is connected to the clutch housing, it stops as well. However the clutch shoes, which are driven by the engine, keep trying to move the gummed-up clutch housing, because the engine’s power is enough to overcome some of the friction.  The result is that the shoes slip uselessly inside the housing.

     Over time, continued slippage will cause the clutch shoes’ high friction lining to wear away.  Once the lining is gone the clutch shoes will slip excessively, even when the gasoline powered tool is being employed to perform the lightest task.  That’s because slipping prevents a good portion of the engine’s power from being transmitted to the cutting head.

     That’s it for our series on centrifugal clutches.  Next we’ll be discussing transistors, how they’re used in electronic controls to switch things on and off and perform other functions.