How To Make A PCB Using A Laser Printer

When working with electronic circuits, sooner or later we feel the need to make our own PCBs to get a more functional and better looking circuit board.

I already made a video in the past to show how that could be done, for simple circuits, by drawing the circuit manually on the copper clad with a special kind of pen that uses an ink impervious to the chemicals needed to etch the PCB.

This time, I am presenting you a different technique, that allows you to draw the traces, and also the silk layer, with any of the design tools of your choice available on the Internet and the market in general. All you need to have is a laser printer. You can refer to this newer video for a demonstration of the process.

The whole process works on the concept that the printouts of the laser printers are made with a toner that has the characteristic of being able to protect the copper from the etching chemicals, like the ink from the pen in the original video. This is because the toner is made with a sort of plastic material.

Unfortunately, we cannot use a laser printer to print the masks directly on the copper clad, because the PCB boards are too thick for the printer. Therefore, we need to find a way to print on paper and then tranfer the printed ink to the copper afterwords.

This is made possible by a certain quality of glossy paper that do not allow the toner to stick permanently on its surface when exposed to heat. Even paper from magazines that are printed on glossy paper works relatively well for this to happen. However, there are specialized papers, that are designed specifically for this, which are called Thermal Transfer Paper For PCBs. A quick search on-line will give you plenty of places where you can buy it at a relatively modest price.

Once you have your PCB design ready and printed on such paper, the process to create PCBs becomes really straightforward.

First step is the transfer of the traces drawing to the copper. The copper needs to be perfectly clean, so it is always better to use a piece of steel wool to scrape away copper oxide and other dirt from the copper surface. Just move the wool in a circular fashion to remove all the particles of oxide from the copper clad and make sure to use gloves, otherwise the contact with the skin of your hands will soon oxidize again the copper.

Once all the oxide is removed, you need to deep clean the copper to remove any particle of dust from it. To do so, you can use some alcohol. Once done, let the board stand for a a while to make sure it is completely dry.

Then lay the board on the printout, making sure the copper is in contact with the drawing. Wrap the paper all around the board to make sure it will not move during the transfer process.

Once the PCB is wrapped with the paper, put it on the table copper-side up and use an iron at the max temperature, with no steam, to heat uniformly the whole surface of the paper and the pcb wrapped in it. Be careful not to burn yourself in the process, of course. You do not need to press hardly, the weight of the iron is just enough. Just make sure you keep moving the iron so that the whole surface is heated uniformly. Do that for a while, until the copper clad becomes almost as hot as the iron. Don’t worry about burning the paper. it is not going to happen. Paper burns at 451 F while the iron, even at the hottest temperature, doesn’t normally go over 400F.

Once the paper and the clad are well heated, put aside the iron and unwrap the board, making sure that when you remove the paper from the copper side you do that slowly and uniformly. The ink from the printout will now have moved from the paper to the copper.

Second step is the actual etching. Use a plastic container, fill it with some ferric chloride solution, enough to cover the whole pcb, then dump the board in the solution. Once the board is in the solution, you’ll notice that the ferric chloride starts changing color. From the initial brown color, it starts becoming darker and darker. This happens because of the copper on the board that starts dissolving in the solution.

While the etching process continues, try to agitate the solution periodically, which will speed up the reaction. A warmer room will also help. Every now and then, check the status of the board and remove it from the solution as soon as you don’t see any more copper on the surface of it.

Once the etching is completed, remove the PCB from the solution and start rinsing it immediately, to stop the reaction that would continue to attack the remaining copper on the surface.

You now need to remove the toner film from the copper traces, otherwise you will not be able to solder the components on it. To do so, use a Lacquer thinner on a piece f paper or cotton and work slowly a little bit at a time. Do this in a well ventilated area. Solvent vapors are both unpleasant to breath and harmful.

Third step is to drill the holes. It is only necessary if you use pass through components, of course. If you use surface mounted components, this step is not necessary, unless you need holes to hold in place the board.

Finally, the fourth and last step is to do another transfer, on the components side of the board, to transfer the drawing for the silk layer. The procedure is exactly the same, but this time the toner will be lay down directly on the board support, not on the copper.

You can see how this process allows you to quickly repeat the whole procedure on as many boards as you like. You just need to print multiple copies of the layouts on the thermal paper and go through the previous four steps.

Hope yo liked this procedure, and don’t forget to go watch the corresponding video, so you will see exactly how this procedure works.

How To Choose A Resistor

How do we choose the right resistor when designing and building an electronic circuit? Here are the major parameters that should be kept into account.

bunch_of_resistors

A resistor is a component made out of a poor conducting material, so that it can offer a resistance to the flow of the current.

You can think to resistance in terms of the obstacles that charges encounter when moving from one end to the other of a conductor. The more obstacles, the higher the resistance. In a metallic wire, for example, the charges are the electrons of the conduction band (see this post and this other one for further details).

In today’s post I would like to address an issue that sometimes is underestimated when designing an electronic circuit: how to choose the right resistor for the job.

Resistors are not all the same. Besides the resistance value that distinguishes one from the other, there are other factors that are important as well.

Here is a list of all the important factors, why they are important, and what are the consequences of not choosing a resistor based on each specific factor.

  • The first thing that comes to mind is the tolerance, which is usually provided on the body of the resistor itself, along with its resistance value.

resistor_color_bands

In color coded resistors, the tolerance is defined by the band that is far away from all the others. In the above picture, for example, it is the gold band, which means that the tolerance is of 5%. In other resistors, where the resistance is explicitly written on the body of the resistor, the tolerance is usually written in clear along with the resistance. More in general, you’ll have to refer to the data sheet provided by the constructor to figure out its tolerance.
Tolerance is an important factor for those circuits that require very precise resistors, like measuring instruments and the like. It is also important when the resistor is used for the polarization of a critical component. If the resistors used in the project have a tolerance that is too high, the whole circuit may not function properly because the actual value of the resistor is too different from the one that was required.

  • Operating Temperature. This depends both from the ambient conditions and by the temperature raise produced by the power dissipation. There are two reasons to keep the temperature range into account. First, resistors slightly change their resistance with the change of the temperature. Using the resistor outside its temperature range would cause a variation greater than the one considered by the tolerance. Second, but not last, when the resistor is traversed by current it heats up. As long as the current stays within a range for which the power dissipation is not exceeded, everything is fine. Otherwise, the resistor can easily overheat and burn.

scorched_resistor

  • Maximum Voltage. Operating a resistor above its maximum voltage rating may cause sparks that would destroy the resistor.

burned_resistor

Resistors used in low power circuits usually have a maximum voltage in the order of at least 100V, and that’s why people usually don’t care or it doesn’t even know that there is such a parameter. In fact, low voltage circuits will normally never exceed the maximum voltage of any resistor. However, there are specific applications where voltages in the circuits can be above the 100V threshold. In such cases, it is important to verify that the resistors used in the circuit can withstand those voltages.

  • Temperature coefficient. This is the parameter that tells us how much the resistance changes per degree Celsius. It depends on the material the resistor is made of, but also on the heat dissipation capability of the component. Some resistors are built with an embedded heat sink to reduce the value of this factor.

power_resistor

This information becomes important in those cases where it is known that the resistor is going to dissipate a considerable amount of power. Based on that, it is possible to figure out if the resistor needs an external heat sink and, eventually, the heat sink thermal resistance.

  • Parasitic Capacitance and Inductance. A real resistor does not have only a resistance but also a very low value of capacity and inductance that may affect its functionality at high frequencies.

equivalent_resistor

These parasitic capacitance and inductance are caused by the physical dimensions and shape of the component and cannot be avoided. When working at high frequencies, these values need to be taken into account, since they will generate both capacitive and inductive reactance that will affect the value of the resistor at the particular frequency it is going to be used.

  • Packaging. This keeps into account where and how the resistor is going to be mounted. It can be a through holes resistor, which is provided with two leads to make the connections. The leads are usually inserted in the holes of a perforated board or of a Printed Circuit Board (PCB). Or, the resistor can be a Surface Mounted one. This has no wires, just two pads that can be directly soldered on a Surface Mounted technology (SMT) PCB. Other factors affecting the packaging include the possibility of attaching it to an external heat sink, and/or the necessity to properly ventilate it, to guarantee enough heat dissipation.

 

Inductors Basics

Describing basic functionality of the inductors and how they are treated when connected in series or in parallel.

What is an inductor? How does it work? And how we handle inductors when they are connected in series or in parallel? Here are the answers.

An inductor is an electric device capable of storing energy in the form of a magnetic or electromagnetic field.

inductor

In its basic form, an inductor can be made of a single loop of wire, or several loops (solenoid). These loops can be arranged in air or on a ferromagnetic core.

When an inductor is connected to a battery, a current starts flowing in the circuit. The current that flows inside the inductor generates a magnetic field, like the one that would be generated by an actual magnet. This field stores an amount of energy, the same way an electric field does.

inductor_circuit

If the battery is suddenly disconnected, the energy that was accumulated in the inductor must be somehow released. but the energy cannot be released instantaneously, it needs to be released a little bit at a time. And since the energy depends on the current flowing in the inductor, the inductor tries to keep the it running, even if the battery is no more connected. To do so, it uses the energy stored into the magnetic field to generate a voltage at its terminals to keep the current going.

inductor_open_circuit

However, since the inductor is now connected nowhere, current cannot flow, unless the voltage is so high that the current can flow in the thin air. And that is exactly what happens: the voltage increases so much that there is a sudden discharge of current through the air, in the form of a spark, that dissipates all the energy that was stored in the inductor. This spark is the one you may sometimes notice when opening a switch that is powering a lamp or a motor, or when you pull the plug from a device that was working using a considerable amount of current.

Similarly to the case where the current is suddenly removed, an inductor generates a voltage also when the current is just changed in intensity. In this case, the voltage is created to react to the change in current, trying to keep it to the same value, so the energy can be conserved.

In both cases, the amount of voltage is proportional to the change in current (ΔI) and inversely proportional to the amount of time in which the current changes (Δt). In other words, the faster the current change, the higher is the voltage.

For a specific inductor, the ratio between the change of current and the interval in which that happens equals the voltage generated by the inductor divided by a constant that depends on the physics dimensions of the inductor. Such constant is called inductance, represented with the letter L, and can be calculated with the following experimental formula:

inductance_formula

where:

μ = permeability of the material inside the coil

N = number of turns making the coil

A = area of the cross section of the coil

l = length of the coil

L is measured in Henry.

μ is the product of the permeability of the void (or air) and the relative permeability of the material:mu

The voltage at the terminals of the inductor is therefore calculated as:

vdit

We can now calculate the energy stored in the magnetic field of an inductor as the integral of the power, which is obtained multiplying the voltage at the inductor and the current that flows through it:

inductor_energy

which, considering the value of the voltage previously calculated, can be solved as follows:

inductor_energy_value

where I is the current flowing through the inductor at the time the energy is calculated.

When choosing an inductor for a circuit, the following parameters must be considered:

  • the value of the inductance in Henry

  • the max current the inductor can sustain; failure to specify that could cause the inductor to overheat, since the wire could be too thin to deal with the required current;

  • the max voltage that can be applied to the inductor; an excessive voltage on the inductor could cause sparks due to insufficient insulation of the wire.

Inductors In Series

Let’s consider a series of inductors of different inductance values and let’s calculate the equivalent inductance.

inductors_in_series

All the inductors, being in series, are traversed by the same current. And since each inductor has its own inductance value, each one will store a different amount of energy:

inductors_series_energies.png

The total energy stored in the inductors is therefore:

inductors_series_total_energy.png

So, the equivalent inductance is clearly:

series_inductance.png

which we can generalize as:

series_inductance_gen.png

Inductors In Parallel

In the case of inductors in parallel, they are all subject to the same voltage and are traversed by a different current:

inductors_in_parallel.png

parallel_inductors_voltages.png

From these equations we can find the currents by integration:

parallel_inductors_currents.png

The total amount of current is therefore:

parallel_inductors_total_current.png

So we can say that the equivalent inductance of a parallel of inductors can be determined through the formula:

parallel_inductors_formula_1.png

or, more in general:

parallel_inductors_formula_2.png

All the formulas presented here are very general and can be applied to both DC and AC circuits. Note, however, that since AC circuits have a variable voltage and current, the application of the formulas in AC is a little more challenging then in DC. But this is a story for another time.