For Christmas this year I received a new soldering iron from Santa Claus! I picked out the soon to be discontinued Hakko FX-888 because I like the idea of an analog knob rather than a digital display. It’s a beauty and a joy to solder with. Sadly, school has picked back up and so I know I won’t have as much time to spend playing around on the tool bench. I’m taking solid state electronic devices and electromagnetic engineering this semester and they’re going to be tough! I’m really excited about gaining a solid understanding of semiconductors though. I’m searching for the perfect summer internship right now, so I’m definitely keeping busy. I have a resolution this year to spend more time with the blog so look out for some more entries about my projects on the way.
This month I started working with FPGAs in my digital circuits lab. We’re using the Basys2 Spartan-3E FPGA board for class, which we got to buy for ourselves. I was so excited when I got it. However, actually programming it was a little more complicated than I would have initially thought. The Xilinx ISE is an ENORMOUS program that took me a few tutorials and a little bit of time to figure out. Then there’s the simulation and the actual programming of the board. Whew! My very first project was an OR gate. Yep, I used a very powerful FPGA board to implement a single OR gate. Well, we all have to start somewhere. I now have a couple slightly more complicated circuits under my belt and can’t wait to get to some really neat stuff. Thankfully the lab steps us through increasingly complicated projects and I hope to be able to make some of my own projects by the end. We’re using Verilog rather than VHDL, but I hope to eventually get both of them down for versatility. I’ll keep you guys updated on some of the more interesting problems!
This summer, I read American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherman, a biography on J Robert Oppenheimer. For the most part, I really enjoyed the book. I loved the parts about his physics research and the Manhattan Project, but some of the chapters that delved into his political affiliations got a little tiresome.
I have read a number of other biographies on physicists and I wish there were better biographies on famous engineers. I know that this subject has been written about many times before, but I really lament the fact that there aren’t more engineering heroes. I’d love to know more about some of the “founding fathers” of modern electronics and computing. I’ve read a few books on the history of computing, but if you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them in the comments!
Well, another semester has arrived. I’m pretty excited for my digital circuits lab because I finally get to figure out how to use FPGAs. To be honest, at this point, I don’t know much about them but hear EEs talking constantly about FPGAs and I’d love to have something intelligent to say.
I also accomplished a big feat this week. My old TI-89 calculator from high school (10+ years old) died. I ordered a nice set of torx screwdrivers and dissected the thing. In the process, I managed to spill all the buttons everywhere. I took everything apart, cleaned out the dust, prodded and poked at some parts and then decided to put it back together so I didn’t lose any parts. Lo and behold, it worked! I’m pretty sure my genius engineering was just getting rid of the dust, but hey, I fixed something!
As with many other electrical engineering programs, we have a two semester senior project. I’m trying to keep a running tab of various ideas that I have between now and then of my more ambitious projects that I might not be able to complete fully on my own. I kept forgetting my good ideas that inevitably come to me in the shower, right before falling asleep or on a run. I decided that I really needed to start a little project idea journal. Of course I had to decorate it with a few Sparkfun, Adafruit and Arduino stickers with a puppy thrown in for good measure.
Happy idea generation to all!
I ordered the Adafruit.com Ice Cube Tube Clock for a fun project to complete between semesters. The kit uses an old vacuum tube as a display, beside is a picture where I’m testing it to make sure it’s real ;). Well, I couldn’t resist getting into it the other weekend and so I started methodically soldering. Then I came upon the capacitor/pad from heck! It just wouldn’t solder. The solder kept blobbing up on top of the pad and I tried everything to make it work. I asked around on Twitter and the consensus was to clean the leads and the pads, apply some flux and then try again. I have my final in signals this week and then I’m going to be on vacation, but when I get back, I’m going to conquer this beast.
In the meantime, Fourier series and transforms are my new best friends. We’re getting to know each other quite well.
I’m pretty sure many people have this dream, but I’d love to own a couple of acres on a mountain with a tiny cabin where I can spend a few weeks each year. Who doesn’t love the idea of a little escape? However, my engineering brain begins to creep in and I start thinking about off the grid power. With the rise of the “prepper” movement, the term off-the-grid has taken on a little bit of a “tinfoil hat” connotation. I’m just fascinated with the idea of a solar/wind setup that can power many needs. However, as my electrical knowledge grows, I begin to understand more about the complexities of this dream.
Do you go fully off the grid or have a hybrid system where the solar is a primary system, but you use power from a supplier for heavy loads? How do you decrease the loads to the very minimum, while still maintaining some modern comforts and amenities? Do you try and wire a structure entirely in DC, forcing you to buy expensive appliances and use an inverter only when necessary?
There are commercially available charge control systems that prevent overcharge of batteries and reverse current, but I’ve been thinking of how one would actually design one of these. My skills are not there yet, but it’s fun to ruminate on what sort of problems I would need to solve with this. It is a little weird thinking of things with much larger power requirements than most electrical engineers are used to. I need to do quite a bit more research to learn some of the safety measures necessary.
I found a few schematics on the internet for charge controllers. One by Mike over at mdpub.com uses MOSFETs and Op-Amps. Another solution he came up with was part of the 555 timer contest. Hopefully I’ll get to build one of these someday.
Well, as of now, this is all a theoretical pipe dream because there’s this little problem of buying land, a structure, and thousands of dollars of solar panels and equipment. It’s fun to think about though!
Summer school is rough.
Electrical Network Analysis (ENA) and Signals and Systems are not easy classes. I find myself spending quite a bit of time in the books with little time left over for tinkering around. Between keeping up with regular life and cramming convolutions and Fourier transforms in my head, my spare time is quite limited.
ENA has been a little rough. Summer classes are accelerated and I’m fighting to keep up with it. On the other hand, I’ve really enjoyed signals and systems. We finally started to put the theoretical background together with more practical applications. I’ve always heard terms like “aliasing” and “lowpass and bandpass filters” thrown around, but I honestly had no idea what they meant. Getting to see how seemingly crazy math turns into a practical device that has wide-sweeping applications is really fascinating. Signal processing seems difficult to say the least but it explains so much of our modern computing.
Anyway, this was a terribly short update. Hopefully I’ll have some time to work on a few projects in the next few weeks!
I have a plea to all the engineers of the world. I have a box full of forgotten electronics that are gathering dust. I’m looking for some summer projects and I’m wondering if you have any ideas about what I could do with any of these things??
So we have a top of the line (for 2004, haha) Sony 5-megapixel camera and a beautiful, black MacBook that has something wrong with the logic board where it won’t charge batteries but will run when plugged in. On the next row we have from L-R, a broadband USB, a broken iPhone 3g, a broken iPhone 3gs, an old iPod, a wifi hotspot and two cheap prepaid cellphones.
I feel like there has to be a good project somewhere in there, I have to be able to do *something* with all this. I just can’t come up with any projects to hack together or modify or strip for parts or whatever.
My husband is an ultrarunner and he ran in the Jemez Mountain Trail Race this past weekend. Since this happened to be during my time between the spring and summer semesters, we decided to turn it into a vacation since this would probably be our only chance this year. The neat part is that this race was in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Now I’m a huge Feynman fan and I’m fascinated by the Manhattan Project so I was actually pretty excited to visit this area. I knew about the history of the area I had no idea that there was still such an extensive research facility there.
There is a neat little museum there called the Bradbury Science Museum that talks about this history of the area as well as current research. The museum is sponsored by the US Department of Energy and I’ll admit that one of the videos had a little bit of a propaganda slant to it, but overall the museum was really informative. The IEEE sponsored a neat little exhibit about the supercomputing that happens there at the laboratory. Who knew that the first petaflop computer, called the Roadrunner was developed in Los Alamos?
The town itself was incredibly interesting. I went to the Starbucks while my husband was out running and there were people doing intense looking physics all over the place. There were small children speaking multiple languages and ordering short decaf dry cappucinos. The race director was resigning that year because he was going off to Vienna (or Geneva?) to work in some nuclear research facility for a few years. Basically it was a small town full of some of the best scientists from around the world. I would love to live there!!
While we were there, we visited a surplus store called The Black Hole. I walked in and was completely overwhelmed. It was probably over 10,000 feet of stuff from floor to ceiling, literally millions of items just piled on top of one another. Quite a bit of the stuff seemed to be non-functional but there was everything from hoods, centrifuges, CRTs, giant old multimeters, desks, 15k volt oil-filled capacitors, etc. My husband is a HAZMAT firefighter/paramedic and he kept commenting about how horrific it would be if the place ever caught fire. As I wandered up and down the aisles, at points literally crawling over junk, I felt like I was traveling back in time and seeing the progression of technology. It was so amazing, but there was so much stuff I couldn’t decide what to buy and came away empty handed.
We had a great time escaping the heat of Texas and spent one night camping high in the mountains. Our old tent had literally melted, (even though it was properly stored dry and indoors!) but thanks to REI’s wonderful return policy we were able to get a really cool new one. The engineering behind making these tents light, strong, ventilated and yet waterproof is incredible!
I’ll start up my summer classes soon; I’m taking Electrical Network Analysis and Signals and Systems. Both courses are supposed to be pretty difficult at my university, but I’m hoping that being able to just focus on two courses will be manageable. I can handle two things, even if those two things are pretty difficult. Also on the school front, grades are all in and I’m sad to say, my 4.0 is gone. I’m down to a 3.965 🙂 I got an A- in one class and at my university an A- is around a 3.6. I think it’s a little weird that you get docked for an A- but don’t get any extra boost for an A+. Oh well, I can’t really complain!!