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Sunday, November 9, 2014

BIG Amplifiers with SMALL Microcontrollers and LOTS of Tribal Knowledge

Hi Bill,
I wanted to forward to you a slightly edited email I sent to one of our podcast listener’s as I think this is a really good example of some “Tribal Knowledge”.
Hi OM,

Ham radio publications are much like the Internet –all that is published must be scrutinized. One such publication had a beautiful QRP to QRO amp using a 3CX800A7. A few watts in and 800 Watts out. My daughter was in FM radio broadcasting and I told her to introduce herself to the station engineer and to look out for any pulls – then the floodgates opened –about a week later I had a 3CX800A7.
So I started to work on the amp. The circuits just didn’t make sense and parts were missing that would make it work correctly. I contacted the author and here is what he shared. He built the amp but never did get to proof the final article. In fact he sent me his notes and sketches which were correct. Thus I could have never built that amp using just the article. I built it for one band, 20 Meters. It has a tuned input and a Pi-L output so is quite excellent on harmonic reduction.
Oh BTW this amp caused me to learn about PIC Microcontrollers. You cannot hit the 3CX800A7 with HV voltage until the cathode is warmed up (must be a female tube). That time delay is 3 minutes. I could not find a suitable time delay relay with a 3 minute delay that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. So that is when I thought about using the PIC16F84 as a time delay relay. Later I ported that over to a 12F675. The cost was less than $10. In the 3CX1500A7 amp ( another free tube)  I have two microcontrollers in there. One is used for a three second step start on the filaments (don’t want to shock the filaments with inrush current) and the second for the 3 minute delay before starting the HV step start sequence.
You can see the “Big AMP” on my website at http://www.jessystems.com.
There was only one problem – I was worried about the cooling of the tube so I made sure there was plenty of air which I dump into a very small sub-chassis and the exhaust is out through the tube. Well “Dah” large volume in and small port for exhaust and you have a jet engine sitting on the desk top. Man it was loud – I would wear headphones when it was working.  When I built the 3CX1500A7 amp I used a larger plenum so not as loud.
There are several key points I want to make about tribal knowledge:
  1. Turn off the soldering iron and spend a good deal of time “noodling” over the circuit so that it is clear what each function will do and that all the wires connect to something.
  2. Contact the author and ask lots of questions and you might be surprised to find out the published design is not what was designed!
  3. Look for uncommon solutions to build problems. Many times parts used in the articles are so unique that only one exists in the whole world and it is installed in the authors unit.
  4. The amp was built in 2000 and the use of the PIC16F84 as a time delay for an amp was a bit leading edge but don’t be afraid to employ some advanced technology into your projects. [Today an Arduino built into the amp could do time delay, temperature control of blowers, SWR sensing, grid trip protection and even warm your coffee.]
  5. In the Big AMP I figured out how to keep the blower going for about 1 minute after the amp is turned off to “cool down” the tube. The point here is to think about not just the amp itself but refinements to make that $600 tube last for a very long time thus filament current inrush protection and tube cool down.
  6. Don’t forget SAFETY – there is 2000 Volts @ 1 amp running around chassis–it is an electric chair sitting on your desk top. I included a microswitch that when the top cover is off it de-energizes the HV circuits. See if you can spot it in the photos.
Pete N6QW
PS The amp really does exist –see below.

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