Making A Small And Fast Computer Using a Raspberry Pi 4B

Converting the Raspberry Pi to use a SSD or a Hard disk via the USB V.3 connector, instead of the microSD card, allows for a big increase in the speed of the device. The conversion can be done very easily with an RPi 4B, since it already has the capability of booting from a USB-attached storage device, but can be easily done also to older RPi versions with a simple modification to their firmware, following the procedure on the RPi official web site.

The conversion consists in removing the microSD card from the RPi and use instead a hard disk. And for that, I bought on Amazon a nice Samsung 500GB external solid state disk for a very reasonable price. Since it connects through a USB v3 cable, it seems perfect for the job.

If you need a SSD like this, or a different one, you could use my affiliate link to buy one, so you will indirectly support this site and the eleneasy YouTube channel at no extra cost to you. You can also watch the video where I show you how to make the conversion.

And since I now have two devices, the RPi and the SSD, that need to stay connected and work together, I decided to 3D-print a nice box to save some desk space.

There are two parts: one for the actual box and one for its cover. They are both made out of a simple cube, but I made a few slits on the bottom of the box and on the cover to help with the air flow, so the components inside will not overheat, especially the RPi.

Here is the OpenSCAD code I used to design the object:

$fa=0.5;
$fs=0.5;


// BODY

difference()
{
	cube([100, 100, 65]);
	translate([2, 2, 2]) cube([96, 96, 64]);
	translate([1, 1, 63]) cube([98, 98, 3]);
	
	translate([5, 20, -1]) cube([88, 2, 4]);
	translate([5, 34.5, -1]) cube([88, 2, 4]);
	translate([5, 49, -1]) cube([88, 2, 4]);
	translate([5, 63.5, -1]) cube([88, 2, 4]);
	translate([5, 78, -1]) cube([88, 2, 4]);
	
	translate([2, 97, 20]) cube([15, 4, 20]);

	translate([35, 97, 10]) cube([56, 4, 20]);
	
	translate([97, 8 , 10]) cube([4, 70, 15]);
}




// COVER

translate([110, 0, 0]) difference()
{
	cube([98, 98, 2]);
	translate([10, 20, -1]) cube([78, 2, 4]);
	translate([10, 34.5, -1]) cube([78, 2, 4]);
	translate([10, 49, -1]) cube([78, 2, 4]);
	translate([10, 63.5, -1]) cube([78, 2, 4]);
	translate([10, 78, -1]) cube([78, 2, 4]);
}

Pleass refer to my YouTube video for the details of the project.

Polarity Inverters

What are polarity inverters and what are used for.

Picture showing images of polarity interter schematics and the title of the post.

Sometimes we design and build a circuit that needs a dual power supply. But, in certain cases, we really need just a positive voltage to power a circuit and the negative is only used for some special polarization that doesn’t really need the same amount of power used for the positive. Consider, for example, a circuit with a depletion channel MOSFET that requires a negative voltage just for the polarization of its gate.

Example of Depletion Mosfet charateristics, where we can see that the gate voltage can be negative.

In such cases, it is economically better to use a different approach than having a full fledged dual power supply. This approach is called “polarity inversion”, resulting in a device that is able to convert the positive voltage of a power supply into a low current negative voltage.

A polarity inverter is, therefore, a circuit that is capable of taking a positive voltage with respect to the ground and generate a negative voltage also with respect to the ground, so that we can have both a positive and a negative voltage available at the same time to power another circuit, without using a dual power supply.

In principle, the inverter is based on the following circuit.

Schematic describing the working principle of the polarity inverter.

There are two capacitors and two diodes, and a switch that connects the positive of the first capacitor alternatively to the positive voltage source and to the ground.

When the switch is set toward the positive voltage, capacitor C1 starts charging through the first diode, which closes the circuit toward the ground. Given enough time, the voltage at the capacitor increases up to the input voltage minus the voltage drop on the diode.

For example, if the input voltage is 9V, the capacitor will charge to about 8.4V.

This is represented in the following diagram by the first pulse on Vin and the corresponding voltage on C1.

Wavw diagrams showing voltages in the various parts of the previous circuit.

Now, once the capacitor is charged, we move the switch toward ground. Doing so, we open the circuit that connects capacitor C1 to the input voltage and, instead, we connect the same end of the capacitor toward ground.

This way, the voltage at the capacitor C1 is now providing a forward polarization to the second diode, the one on the right, and therefore we have a closed circuit that goes from capacitor C1, to capacitor C2 and through the second diode.

If we choose the two capacitors with the same capacitance, half of the charges on capacitor C1 will transfer to capacitor C2 and, as a result, both capacitors C1 and C2 will end up with half of the original charge and, therefore, with half of the original voltage that was on C1.

This is represented by the second part of the above diagram, where now the input voltage is zero, but capacitors C1 and C2 are at half the original voltage.

On the next cycle, we move the switch back toward the power supply, so capacitor C1 is again charged to the input voltage. In this case, however, the second diode is inversely polarized, so capacitor C2 is isolated and cannot either charge nor discharge, thus it keeps the previous value of voltage.

Moving the switch back to the ground, C1 gives now some more charge to C2 and, therefore, its voltage drops a bit while C2 voltage, instead, increases more.

And you can now see that if I keep switching back and forth, adding more cycles to the diagram, both C1 and C2 keep retaining more and more charges, and their voltage keep increasing so that, after a number of cycles, C2 has reached about the same voltage as the input.

Now, note how capacitor C2 is connected to the ground on its positive side, and the other end is offering its negative voltage to the the output of the circuit that is thus negative with respect to the ground.

If you look at the last of the four diagrams, in fact, you can see how the output voltage becomes more and more negative with respect to the ground, with a tendency to reach the 8.4 V we mentioned before.

So, if we keep moving the switch back and forth quickly, after reach that state we can sustain it, even if we remove a little amount of charge from C2 at each cycle, due to a load that we could put across its leads.

This circuit is called a charge pump, because is able to pump charges into the second capacitor, even if it is not directly connected to the input voltage.

Note that if we start applying a strong load to the output, C2 won’t be able to recharge fast enough and its voltage will start dropping. And that is why we cannot use this polarity inverter for loads comparable to those that we can put directly on the original power supply.

But, how do we move a switch fast enough to obtain this functionality?

The trick is to replace the mechanical switch with a a solid state one, and control it with a square wave oscillator, the so called astable multivibrator.

One way to do that is to use a 555 timer, like in the following schematic.

Practical realization of a polarity inverter using a 555 timer.

The circuit on the right half side is exactly the same as the one in the previous schematic. However, on the left half side, the mechanical switch has been replaced with a 555 timer setup as an astable multivibrator, with a duty cycle close to 0.5.

Pin 3 of the 555, which is the output pin, will move alternatively from the voltage of the power supply to the ground, thus working as if it was the switch of the previous schematic.

The oscillation frequency is provided by R1, R2 and C4, which I calculated in this example to provide a frequency of about 30 kHz with a duty cycle very close to 0.5.

If you would like to know more about the 555 timer, I suggest you to watch the video I made about one year ago where I describe what it is and how it works. Here is the link to the video.

In order to be able to support relatively higher currents with the polarity inverter, we need to be able to recharge the capacitors at a faster pace, which translates in a higher current. One way do so is by using the output of the 555 to pilot a couple of transistors with a high value of beta, the coefficient that express the amplification in current of the transistors. With a higher available current, the capacitors will charge faster and, therefore, it will be possible to handle a higher load current.

Here is an example circuit that can provide higher currents:

Practical schematic of the previous polarity inverter adapted to provide a higher current at its output.

This circuit is basically identical to the previous one but, instead of applying the output voltage of the 555 directly to the charge pump, made of C1, C2, D1, and D2, the 555 controls the two transistors 8050 and 8550, respectively an NPN and a PNP.

With these transistors, we can still connect the positive lead of C2 to the positive of the power supply and to the ground alternatively, and we can force the charges in and out of the two capacitors to move at a faster pace.

The two resistors R3 and R4 are necessary to limit the amount of current through the base of the transistors. Too much current in there would have two unwanted side effects:

First, the transistors could burn because of too much current.

Second, even if the transistors did not burn, they would still go deep into saturation, which would make them spend more time moving between the on and off states and causing the circuit not to work as expected.

In addition to that, since the voltage at the output of the 555 does not change instantaneously between 0 and Vin, there would be a period, during the transition, where both transistors would be on at the same time. As a result, the input voltage would be short circuited for a little while during each cycle, which is a condition definitively to avoid.

To fix the problem, I added those two Zener diodes to the circuit. The Zener diodes create a gap between 4.7V and 5.1V that will prevent the transistors from being both on at the same time, thus fixing the short circuit problem.

Here is how it works.

During the transition from 0 to 9V on pin 3 of the 555, transistor 8550 will be on in the interval between 0 and 4.7V.

During the interval between 4.7V and 5.1V both transistors will be off and, finally, during the transition between 5.1V and 9V, transistor 8050 will be on.

Viceversa, during the transition from 9V to 0, the opposite sequence will happen: first, transistor 8050 will be on, then both transistors will be off, then transistor 8550 will be on, alone.

And that is why the two zener diodes make sure that the two transistors will never be on at the same time, thus protecting them and the power supply.

The final effect will still be the same: the positive lead of C2 will be alternatively connected to the positive and to the ground, making the charge pump to work, and creating the negative output.

To conclude, polarity inverters have their usefulness in certain situations, but are not good enough to replace a full fledged dual power supply.

So, when do we use one or the other?

We will use the polarity inverter in those cases where only a little load is required on that specific pole, whereas the majority of the load would depend on the single power supply.

Whenever we need considerable and comparable amount of power on both the positive and the negative poles, we will need to use a dual power supply.

And finally, if you would like to see the polarity inverter in action, you may want to watch this video, which I posted back in December 2020.

A Tester For Zener Diodes

Zener diodes are used for several purposes, from providing a reference voltage, to protecting sensitive circuits from being destroyed by the wrong input.

Today, I will show you how these diodes work and how to build a simple circuit to measure their most important characteristic, the reverse breakdown voltage. To know more on this topic, please watch the companion video posted on YouTube.

A zener diode looks like a regular diode and actually behaves as such when directly biased (positive voltage on the anode).

However, when inversely biased (negative voltage on the anode), a zener diode behaves in a completely different way.

Let’s take a look at its characteristic I-V diagram:

zener_characteristic

You can see that in the region of direct (or forward) bias, the zener behaves just like any diode. It also seems like in the inverse bias it behaves like a regular diode.  However, there is a big difference between the two.

For a regular diode, the reverse breakdown voltage is very high, in the order of 100V or more, sometimes much more. Such high that you never think at it when you use regular diodes, and you assume that with inverse bias the diode just does not conduct electric current.

For a zener diode, instead, the reverse breakdown voltage is low, in the order of one or two digit volts. Therefore, it is very easy in an electronic circuit to bring this kind of diode to reach the condition when it will start conducing electric current even if inversely polarized.

We actually exploit this behaviour to create reference voltages, or to provide a protection against unwanted voltages at the input of certain circuits, or a ton of other things.

The behaviour of a diode depends in fact upon the way it was fabricated, and in particular upon how it was doped. Regular diodes are lightly doped, while zener diodes are heavily doped. Depending on the amount of doping on both the P and the N side of the junction, the reverse breakdown voltage changes. That way, manufacturers can create zener diodes within a large range of breakdown voltages.

Problem is, manufacturers often don’t put the value of the breakdown voltage on the body of the components. Instead, they put some internal code or, sometimes, nothing at all.

So, if you had a number of such diodes on your workbench, how to distinguish them from one another?

Meet the zener tester.

It is a device that allows you to measure the reverse breakdown voltage, so you know if the diode works and what that voltage is.

How such a tester works? From the I-V diagram above, you can see that the characteristic of the zener diode is an almost vertical line when polarized in the reverse bias region. For any current value in that vertical line, the voltage is always the same and corresponds to the breakdown voltage. So, if we circulate a current at any point of that vertical line, we can measure at the terminals of that diode its breakdown voltage.

The zener tester I’m showing you today does just that: forces a current into the zener diode so we can measure the value of the breakdown voltage. We choose this current in such a way that it is high enough to stay away from the point where the characteristic is not linear, but low enough to avoid dissipating inside the diode a power that the diode itself cannot handle.

The following link allows you to download an archive containing the schematic of such device, along with the OpenSCAD code to 3D print the box for the device.

zener_diodes_tester_files

In the schematic you’ll see that I used a ready-made boost converter and a digital voltmeter. Here are the links to the store where I bought them. Of course you are free to use any other equivalent component. It will work as well.

BOOST CONVERTER

DIGITAL VOLTMETER

Please make sure to watch the YouTube video that completes the information I provided in this post. Between the two, you should have a complete view of the design of the device and should be able to build it.

Happy experiments!