When Tinkers Attack

Hey, you in the mood for an electronics-heavy, hardware hacking post? Who cares, my blog my rules. Anyway: lotta words and science and eventually pictures, I promise, but it’s nerds all the way down from here.

Okay, I gotta at least sum up the background of this post: I’ve been playing around with a device called a Photon, made by a company called Particle. It’s a tiny little microcontroller device that seriously blurs the line between the “programmable ICs” I played with a decade ago and, well, computers. It’s the size of my thumb, costs less than $20, and its killer feature is an onboard Wi-Fi radio. They’re at https://particle.io. Go buy one, I’ll wait.*

* Disclaimer: While I have received a free Photon from a friend who works at Particle, I also bought a handful of them on my own, and Particle probably doesn’t want me writing a review for them anyway, honest or otherwise, and in fact are no doubt reading this with an increasing sense of dread. (Plus I bricked the free one right out of the gate. I’m just saying.) My opinion, which is possibly biased, is that you should buy a bunch of them. They’re awesome.

So with all that summed up, I can now move on to the problem I’ve had all week with it: I want to drive a super-bright LED module with my Photon. Seems pretty straightforward, right? With my Teensy USB (another cool product, go buy some of them, too!) I could just push current out to the red, blue or green pins of the LED module and it would light up. It is worth noting that the Teensy was a current-bearing** beast. It could shovel 80mA of current out of each pin at 5V without even getting warm. Well, without getting hot. Well, without burning the house down at any rate–look, the point is this module will take a full watt of power and the Teensy could deliver it easily.

** ampiferous? Heh. Shut up that’s an awesome word right there

Enter the Photon.

This thing is unrelentingly awesome, I won’t hear a word otherwise. One of the great features is that it runs on a super-low power budget. It runs on 3.3V (even though it will accept 5V). This means I can plug it straight into USB (5V) and it runs just fine. But those pins only spit out 3.3V. And to make matters worse, it’ll only give 25mA per pin and 125mA overall. It has a lot of love to give, but not a lot of power: 82.5mW per pin means that even with a pin driving each LED separately, it puts out less than a quarter of a watt.

But wait! My LED module has tiny little load switching transistors on it! You plug the board into 5V and ground, and then you just signal which LED you want to light up. All the drive power comes directly from the power rail, not the microcontroller… less than a tenth of a watt, in fact! Yay!

So how come, when I hook it up, the LEDs barely glow? Where my photons at, Photon?

It’s not the Photon. It’s the module. The LED module is a Sparkfun 11588 Tri-Color Breakout. This is a fun little kit you assemble yourself, and more importantly everything is easily understandable as you build it. In order to drive the LEDs, you build a circuit that is very easy to follow and understand: you drive a little current into the base of the transistor, and the collector responds by pulling down big current from the 5V power supply and dumping it through a resistor and the LED before returning to ground. More current means more light. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, it’s comprehensible.

It’s also not the best design for many applications. It was great for what it did, mind you; it just doesn’t adapt well to changing requirements. This circuit has what is called “High-Side Drive”, meaning the transistor (which “drives” the circuit) is connected to the 5V side. If we took the transistor out and moved it down next to the ground side, it would be called “Low-Side Drive”.

Why does this matter? Well… okay, TL;DR it just does and if you don’t want a longer explanation skip to the next paragraph. The longer explanation is this: I don’t actually know. Man, I sure hope you skipped this part. What I think is happening is that with 3.3V on the base and 5V on the collector, a 1.7V volt drop is created across the Collector-Base junction (Vcb for you electronics nerds), artificially limiting the output from the transistor. Normally a transistor can be thought of as an entirely current-based device, but in this case the transistor is forced to throttle the flow all the way back until a 1.7V drop is maintained from the 5V rail down to the 3.3V signal.

Now, there are a few ways you could fix this problem. The first is to alt-tab over to Adafruit and buy a 3.3V to 5V signal converting chip. They’re like $1.50, no biggie. You’d pay more in shipping than you would for the hardware, though, and if you’re like me–and this example you are–you’re gonna throw ton of other in your cart, so that chip is going to set you back closer to $50.

A second option is to dig around in the garage for some old reed relays you have lying around in an old junk parts drawer full of electronics components. You have one of those, right? Hey, me too! So you wire up the Photon to open and close the relays, and the relays switch the 5V supply directly to the signal pins on the module. Check it out:

Oh, wait, sorry. I said it was bright. (Fun fact: I have never seen my cell phone create an internal reflection like this before.) Here, let me turn it off.

There we go. Now this circuit works and all, but it still leaves something to be desired. I can switch the relays on and off, but that’s all I can do: turn the lights on–all the way on–or all the way off.

You can dim LEDs from a digital circuit if you turn it off and back on really fast. You shut it off and then back on before the eye can see the flicker. Do this over and over really fast, and it looks like the LED is getting darker. This trick is called pulse width modulation, or PWM. But to trick the eye, you gotta send these pulses out super fast, and those poor little relays have no chance of keeping up: they contain actual, physical, mechanical switches that are controlled by magnets. (No, I don’t know how magnets work. Yes, I am Mormon. NO, I really don’t know how magnets work. Please stop asking.) The point is, because they’re mechanical devices, they can’t switch on and off faster than you can see. We need a way to switch them on and off electronically.

A third option is to call your friend Kevin (you have a friend named Kevin, right?) who is really good with tools and insanely good at electronics (MY friend Kevin is, too–this is getting weird). He’ll tell you that you can use a 74HCT240 CMOS/TTL buffer, which is a chip that looks exactly like the one you were gonna get from Adafruit, and does exactly the same thing, but has been around for years and years–certainly long before 3.3V computing ever existed. More importantly, he can come to your house on Saturday and bring you one of these chips out of his electronics parts bin.

Cool! So you’ve got a free part coming, now you just have to wait…

Yeah, me either. Time for a fourth option. Let’s head back out to the garage. Do you have a can of solid-state relays left over from when you were manufacturing audio cutout boards for vibration control computers? No? Thank goodness, that would have been way too freaky. Anyway, I DO, so I went ahead and grabbed some.

Just one problem. They’re left over from building computer parts, parts which I built in this millennium. That’s a problem because computers nowadays use all SMT stuff: surface-mount technology. When I used these SSRs, I would etch a flat circuit board, hold the chip where it was supposed to go, then wash hot solder over the feet to make it stick to the copper. Those little feet have big flat pads on them so they can stick, and that means they don’t have the spiky pokey feet I need to jam them into my prototyping breadboard. If only I had some way of attacking wires to the SMT pads.

So, anyway, last night I sort of crafted an unholy abomination of electronics.

(That’s option four: “craft an unholy abomination”.)

The SMT chips need a flat board to stick do, and the prototyping board needs wires or leads. So how about a board with wires on it? This is a real thing you can get professionally, called a breakout board. I don’t have one, but I do have a lot of parts…

I grabbed an unetched circuit board and cut it down to size. I don’t have any etchant, but that’s okay. There are plenty of… decidedly mechanical… ways of removing material. Marked off the little SMT pads, and started scratching a channel before I realized I needed to be taking pictures of what is no doubt going to become a triumphant abomination.

I ditched the knife and got out my handy dandy Dremel tool and the tiniest burr head I could find for it.

Okay, time to slap some solder on there. It’s been 10 years since I’ve held a soldering iron, and all I can say for this solder job is that I did not, at any point, try to hold the iron by the burny ouchy end.

Okay, halfway home. Now it’s time to give this little breakout board some legs that can go into my prototyping board…

If you’re looking at this and jumping up and down and shrieking “SOLDER IS NOT GLUE” you probably need to work on your impulse control. You’re not wrong, mind you, but dude. Settle down. People are staring.

I’m not gonna lie, soldering is NOT like riding a bicycle. Shaky hands, cold joints, poor temperature control, good times. Here’s the finished product in all its lumpy abominationy glory:

I bent the legs under and then down, so that the legs could squeeze the circuit board because solder is not glue I get it shut up already.

And there we go. Just about ready to plug straight into a circuit board!

Oh, but one last step before we plug it in. Solder is not glue, but you know what IS a good glue?

Actual glue.

And now, the moment of truth! I’m so excited! I take it to my breadboard and plug it in, and…

…nothing. No circuit, no blinking, no flickering, no joy. Completely dead. The above picture was taken between blinks on the little Photon board, so you can’t tell that it is turned on and trying to drive the LED board.

I checked the circuit very carefully for continuity faults before plugging it in, so what could OHHHH MAN.

Fun fact about CMOS chips, which these SSRs are made out of: If you handle them without static protection, especially in a dry house in Utah in October, you will fry them.

See? NOT like riding a bicycle at all.



LOL! No seriously, LOL. This was a lot of fun. Not every story has to end with an epic win to have a happy ending. In this case, I got some practice soldering, and got to remember that there’s a fair bit of skill involved there. The whole time I was soldering the smell of the rosin flux burning off the iron transported me back to my teens, where I spent hundreds of hours hunched over a crappy little Radio Shack 5W iron, putting together (and tearing apart) radios, amplifiers, oscillators, power supplies… any number of crazy projects, just for the fun of doing it. I’m happy I did it and will always treasure OH OF COURSE I GOT IT WORKING BECAUSE YES AN EPIC WIN IS REQUIRED IN THIS INSTANCE.

Let’s talk about option five. I sort of hinted at it accidentally when I was describing the problem earlier. So the original SparkFun design is flawed because it is high-side driven. If we could somehow change this circuit to be switched from the low side… well, ground is zero volts, whether your circuit is 5V or 3.3V. If we can ground one circuit, we can ground any circuit.

I don’t have a schematic drawing of a Low-Side Drive circuit, but if you look at the circuit at the top of this post, the circuit you want can be created by turning it upside down. The 5V comes in and hits the LED, then goes through the resistor, then through the transistor, and out to ground. Heck, I don’t even have to change the circuit board!

Well, okay, not the board itself anyway… readers familiar with electronics will realize that you can’t just run electricity backwards through a diode. That’s, like, a diode’s entire job in electronics, to keep you from doing just that.

So I desoldered the diodes, flipped them around backwards, and soldered them back in.

Transistor? Same problem: current won’t flow up the emitter and out the collector. Same solution: desolder, flip them 180°***, put them back in.

*** That’s 82.2°C in metric

This was a lot harder to do than it sounds. Fortunately, I never had a lot of money for electronics, so I always got most of my parts by scavenging existing circuitry. Here’s a #ProTip for you: remove the component before you remove the solder. You can jam the iron in so that all of the solder joints melt at once, and the parts slips out easily before taking heat damage. Then you can mop the solder out of the joints with a solder sucker or desoldering braid.

Here’s what the module looks like with diodes and transistors reversed:

You can’t really tell with the LEDs, but the transistors have their flat sides facing backwards from the little white outline on the circuit board.

Another fun fact is now I have to remember to always hook VCC and GND up backwards. There is something so perversely satisfying about that. It warms the filthy cockles of my gross disgusting heart.

And now, the question: does it work?

Well, at full power it looks about like the first photo of the board way back at the top of this post. But what if we tell the Photon to drive each LED at a different amount of power? Well… now that’s a different story:

Pay more attention to the bar graphs than the numbers; A5 and A3 have different PWM timers, and for some reason one goes to 256 and the other to 4096. (A5 might actually be a true DAC, I’m not sure. But A3 is definitely PWM.)

So… there you have it. High-side drive is a pain, low-side drive is awesome. Ground is ground is ground. and if your circuit has HSD, you need to use LSD to see all the pretty colors.

You heard me.

4 thoughts on “When Tinkers Attack

  1. Kazriko

    Ah yes, the Teensy. I used a Teensy 3.1 for a POV display. Honestly, it was like taking a sledgehammer to a gnat. The thing was way more powerful than it needed to be for the task. The amazing thing though was that I could run 50 LEDs and the Teensy off a USB lipstick case battery so everything was contained on the rotor and I didn’t need any brushes or anything. Just an optical interrupter for positioning.

    My current board of choice for playing around is a bit more expensive than the Particle, but that may be a worthy one to play around with next. I’m using the WiPy that I got from Kickstarter. Though, 20 euros is only a bit higher than $20.

    The disbursement of magical swords from gyniferous lakes is no way to rule a country.

    Did you try slowly ramping your 330 ohm resistor down while monitoring its current? I imagine the current you were sending to the transistor was insanely low because of that. Maybe it would have been brighter if you gave it a bit more juice. Your board is limited to 25ma per pin, but 330ohm at 3.3v would only give you 10mA with a short on the other side, so you could take it down to 132 ohms without toasting it even with a direct short on the other side. Did you check the voltage of that pin after the 330ohm resistor against ground?

    Too bad you don’t have a CNC machine, you can etch boards with much more precision than with a dremel.

    Solid state relays? Another thing to remember about some chips is that they have a temperature limit/duration limit on soldering… If you kept the soldering iron on them too long it could have roasted their insides. This is more true of surface mount components than through hole.

  2. dbrady Post author

    Heyas Kaz!

    > like taking a sledgehammer to a gnat. The thing was way more powerful than it needed to be

    They really are insane, but in the good way. I love the 80mA current per pin, but I also love that everything is internally limited, which means you can dead short the pins and it’ll self-limit to 80mA. This makes them perfect for direct-driving LEDs with no limiting resistor: just wire one lead to D0 and another to D1 and boom. 80mA is right at the top end of the safe range for a lot of LEDs.

    > I’m using the WiPy that I got from Kickstarter.

    Neat! I’ll have to check it out.

    > gyniferous lakes

    Hee! I confess I have a weak spot for the -ifer suffix. I got an email a few months ago asking if I wanted to buy strifer.com. Nnnnope. Sorry, buddy, but I didn’t buy astrifer.com because you were squatting “strifer”. Heh.

    > Did you try slowly ramping your 330 ohm resistor down while monitoring its current? I imagine the current you were sending to the transistor was insanely low because of that.

    I didn’t; it’s possible. That particular board doesn’t make it easy to tinker (it’s a dedicated solder piece instead of a proto board). The blue and green LEDs drop about 3.0-3.4V, so that’s another possibility. I still think it was a Vcb + Vbe voltage split, but I can’t deniy that once the diodes were finally forward biased there wasn’t much left to ignite the LEDs. Interestingly, powering the entire module with 3.3V (ganging up a bunch of pins in parallel, and then tying the VCC to it) results in exactly the same amount of brightness, so I dunno. Could just be that 3.3Vsupply – 3.0V LED bias – 0.2V transistor bias = 0.1V left to drop across the 7.5-ohm resistor, yielding ~13mA. That’s gonna make for some anemic lighting.

    LSD worked fantastically well, but I appear to have overdone it and the blue LED has given up the ghost. Amazon appears to be getting into the electronics business (yay!) so Prime is overnighting me some more, should be here Saturday. Remember just a few years ago when blue LEDs were $3-5? I paid $3.50 for a pack of FIFTY, which was the smallest bag I could buy. If you need some 10mm blue LEDs, I got your hookup, man. 🙂

    > Too bad you don’t have a CNC machine, you can etch boards with much more precision than with a dremel.

    Yeah. Back when I was doing circuits for real I would etch them, which produced very pleasing results. But even if I’d had etchant and transfer paper and a printable drawing of the board… meh. Etching is a patience-requiring process. I enjoyed grinding the board, in a “this was fun to do once” kind of way, but I’ll probably find other ways to get circuit boards in future. (I probably won’t do etching again unless I make a heater and pump arrangement to circulate warm etchant. Waiting hours for a board to etch is maddening.)

    > Solid state relays? Another thing to remember about some chips is that they have a temperature limit/duration limit on soldering

    That’s definitely possible as well. I’ve led a charmed life with regard to thermal failure; maybe I’m due. 🙂

    > This is more true of surface mount components than through hole.

    I did not know this! Interesting. Yes definitely a possibility, then. The soldering iron I broke out was a new 50W unit so it definitely has the power to cook things.

    1. Kazriko

      When I built my project, I paid $10 per 100 for the LEDs from Amazon. the project needed 3 colors (red/blue/white) so I have a significant number of extras stashed away. They even included resistors. They’re all 4.8mm though. My son has taken a handful of them out to play with however.

      I’ve never etched a circuit board the right way myself. Always used pre-etched breadboards since it was the easiest thing to transfer my designs to from the solderless breadboards. Generally once it got to the production phase, we had a professional design the circuit. My POV display used a length of Oak trim as a circuit board, with the LED legs all soldered together rather than using copper. Not great, but works for a one-night use lighting display.

      On SMT parts, they generally glue them down with solder paste then put them in an oven for a fairly short amount of time. Each data sheet should tell you the max temperature they can take and for how long. I usually just use the breadboard adapters though, like this one. http://www.digikey.com/product-detail/en/capital-advanced-technologies/33205/33205CA-ND/272914

      1. dbrady Post author

        Etching circuits by hand is tedious but I must confess that having my name etched in copper on a breadboard installed at a customer site was suuuuuper satisfying.

        When I was hand-making cutoff boards, I was soldering them by hand (with good ESD controls and a quality temp-controlled iron) using regular wire solder. Exactly as fussy and tedious as it sounds, but at the peak of my soldering expertise I was able to solder a 20-pin PLCC to pads by hand (and have them undamaged and not have leads soldered together). It’s similar to the solder paste trick: I would tin the pads or the iron, and then touch briefly to reflow and wick the solder up under the pad.

        I can definitely confirm that soldering those SSRs was not my finest performance, and those babies spent several seconds at at a time instead of <1s per application of heat. (I held the PLCCs on by hand, using my finger as a thermostat.)

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