Monday, October 14, 2013

My experience with the Arduinix Nixie tube shield

This was not an easy project to finish. Anything that could go wrong, it did, due to a rare combination of ambiguous hardware kit design (that's what started it all), and bad luck (software bugs in Arduino IDE 1.0 nevertheless). In the end, I learned a few things, which made me a better person :) :) :)

Please don't take this as a rant, nor as a (negative) review. As usual, the main purpose of the post is to document the experience and eventually help others troubleshoot similar problems they may have with the Arduinix shield kit.

The first issue I had was not getting the high voltage (180V) required by the Nixie tubes. For some reason, the provided schematic and assembly instructions are ambiguous on the exact value of the C3. This made me look at other HV power supplies, with the conclusions captured in this post. Anyone taking a closer look at the Arduinix HV schematic will notice at least 3 differences compared to others using the same 555-based design:

- the very important capacitor C3 has unusually small value (only 47pF, compared to 2.2nF, a much better value, according to the calculations);
- pins 6 and 7 are connected;
- transistor Q5 is shown as PNP (though correctly marked as MPSA42, an NPN transistor).

The assembly instructions, showing 2.2nF for C3, say that the value of this capacitor varies "the most", "as we make slight modifications and improvements to the kit". What improvements in a standard, proven and tested schematic?

What else was there for me to try? Most of the components around the oscillator, of course: the inductance, the resistors, the capacitors. The highest voltage I got was about 80V. So I decided to revert to "the standard". I cut (top side) and re-routed (bottom side, see photo) the PCB traces around pin 6, 7 and R14/16, I replaced C3 with a 2.2nF, and, unsurprisingly, I got the long desired 180V.

Next step was the software. After I uploaded the sample sketch using Arduino 1.0, only 2 digits were lit.
Three hours and a lot of effort and frustration later (even wondering how everybody else got this sketch working), I realized that Arduino 1.0 itself was the problem. Even the simplest test sketch, tried on multiple Arduinos, failed, incredibly, to work!!! (And you can try it and confirm this too.) Here it is:

void setup() 
  Serial.println("in setup");

void loop()     
  Serial.println("in loop");

Switching to Arduino 1.0.4 solved it. My Arduinix shield is now functional. Making it into a clock is going to take a few more steps though, including hardware (adding RTC, probably by resurrecting Wiseduino+), writing the software (with functionality to set up the time from buttons), and of course, the most challenging of them all, making a proper enclosure.

A few more observations:
- the INS-1 neon lamps are too tall to be used as dots between the IN-17 Nixie tubes;
- it seemed that the little Nixie PCB could be placed at the same level as the Arduino board (and under the shield, as opposed to on top, as it is currently, see the photo above); it has holes that align with those in the original Arduino 2009, but the ICSP connector is in the way though;
- all photos on arduinix gallery show the Nixie board attached to the shield by ribbon cables; I wondered a bit if my solution, using regular headers, was proper;
- this is the cheapest open source Nixie-kit out there.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

High voltage power sources for tubes (Nixie, VFD, Geiger)

Updated June 2, 2017 - added VFD power supply with automatic dimming (#4 in the list below), contributed by Ken

This is a superficial review of the few schematics I encountered while building Nixie clocks, VFD clocks and Geiger counters (no tube amplifier just yet). Although the schematics seemed basic at a glance, they usually ended up being a challenge (that is, they rarely worked right away) for me. That's another reason I am trying to cover them here, so I can use this post as consolidated reference any time I need it.

Tubes require high voltage to work. Some (Vacuum Fluorescent Display) need 40V, others (Nixie) 180-200V, and some others (Geiger) even higher, 400-1000V. The high voltages are generated these days by switching-mode power supplies. Essentially, there is only a handful of popular solutions, and each DIY tube kit picks one of these, based on size, power requirements, cost.

In principle, a switching mode power supply, also known as "boost converter", uses a square wave oscillator ("switch") to create magnetic energy in an inductor, then releasing it as high voltage.
Some scientific explanation (with formulas) can be found here, some practical advice (with schematics and photos) here. Adafruit has a very useful online boost calculator.

1. One of the most popular solution for the square wave oscillator is by using the ubiquitous 555. This is inexpensive, but requires some tweaking and adjusting (values of resistors and capacitors). The schematic is standard, but there seem to be a few variations.
The one below is from Ronald Dekker.

Frank clock (from Pete's Nixie kits) uses an almost identical schematic, but a different set of values for R2-R3- C4 (used for setting the frequency). In the end, the oscillator frequency is about the same at approx 30kHz, calculated with formula  f = 1/0.693/C4/(R3+2R2)  (in the schematic below).

Same 555 is used in Arduinix, but in a different configuration, although still as astable oscillator. This one has an extra HV capacitor (C4) in series with a resistor (R15), whose exact purpose I don't understand. The oscillation frequency is also weird, according to the above formula, with C3 at 47pF, should be 1.5kHz. No wonder this did not work for me.

Another almost identical HV power supply for Nixie tubes is used in the recently-kickstarted "Nixie tube shield" (for which I pledged $15 for the PCB, and yet to receive it).

And finally, 555 is also used to generate the higher voltages required by Geiger tubes, as used by BroHogan (and MightyOhm). The frequency of oscillation is 4.5kHz (f = 1/R1/C2). (I built several Geiger kits from BroHogan and they were all trouble-free.)

2. Other solutions use specialized chips like MAX1771 and MC34063.
Shown below is the high-efficiency boost converter from Nick de Smith (sold by ogiLumen), based on MAX1771.

Akafugu's VFD Version 1 clock uses the same MAX1771, to generate a lower 50V (for VFD tubes) MC34063 to generate 38V for the tubes (thanks Ken for the  correction - see his comment at the end of the post).

For MK2, Akafugu uses the same MC34063 chip (schematic not published yet).
The same chip is also used in their Nixie clock (schematic shown below), to generate 180V. This HV circuit has its own (all SMD) board, which I assembled it myself and worked without a glitch.

3. Yet others use a PWM pin of a microcontroller. This method requires the processor to be connected and programmed in order to generate the high voltage. The solution is cheap (saves an extra chip), smaller in size (again, one less chip), and also seems to be highly efficient.

Below is the HV schematic used by Adafruit's IceTube clock.

Some of the microcontroller-based boost converters have feedback (close loop, with PWM adjusting to the voltage output, if I am not mistaken), as are those from Cogwheel and Satashnik (shown below, respectively).

As with any analog electronics circuit, troubleshooting a HV supply is not easy. A suitable tool would be an oscilloscope, allowing for the measurement and adjustment of the frequency and pulse width. Once these are cleared, the high voltage could be adjusted usually from the trim pot. To modify the voltage range, try different values for the inductor.

4. A very useful addition is Ken's VFD power supply with automatic dimming, schematic shown below. Detailed info can be found here.