Exploding power amplifier transistors! Hmm…that’s not a good start to any ham’s operating session. But it happened to Hans Summers G0UPL as he was doing development work on the firmware (version 1.03) designed to accompany his very popular QCX transceiver sold through his company, QRP-Labs. Hans, the recipient of the 2019 Homebrew Heroes Award, was doing some firmware enhancements for CAT control of the QCX (version 1.03) to drive an external amplifier when the amplifier’s power transistor …. well, see for yourself.
But what on earth caused the explosion? Here’s where a product donated to our Hero for 2019 came to the rescue. Siglent Technologies donated their SDS1202X-E oscilloscope to Hans as part of their sponsorship. He documents how he used the Siglent oscilloscope to diagnose the power spikes that led to the complete component failure in certain circumstances on his blog.
I had switched the QCX off and on again with the toggle switch on the my front panel, rather fast. There was a bright flash and a loud bang. My QCX is connected to a 0-30V 0-20A linear-regulated bench power supply, capable of supplying a lot of power. Investigation revealed that one of the IRF510 power transistors had blown up quite spectacularly. This photo shows the result. Note that the explosion did not blow the IRF510 pins off; my safe removal strategy for replacing components, is to CUT the component out then remove the pins one-by-one from the board by de-soldering them.Hans G0UPL
Hans explains his diagnostics further, “Investigation with my nice new Siglent SDS 1203X-E oscilloscope (thanks to kind donation by Siglent, sponsors of the Homebrew Heroes award 2019), revealed the following different power-up characteristic, depending on whether the QCX is switched on by turning on the power supply, which is what I normally do, or by switching it on at the toggle switch.
The Siglent SDS 1203X-E oscilloscope has storage features where the display can be frozen by pressing the Run/Stop button at top right. So it is possible to capture an event in “human scale time” with the horizontal timebase running at something like 100ms/div or 200ms/div; then with the display frozen you can scroll it left/right using the horizontal position control, then zoom in on the feature to be investigated, using the Horizontal Zoom knob. Once the display shows the section of waveform of interest, you can use the cursors to make precise measurements of time difference, voltage difference etc. This is very useful to examine and understand features which happen too fast to be seen or captured normally. Screenshots can be captured easily by plugging in a USB flash drive and pressing the “Print” button.”
Hans gives more technical details behind his diagnosis on his blog post but the “nasty” spikes were detected through bench testing and then diagnosing the issues producing it using his new Siglent SDS 1203X-E oscilloscope. This provides a cogent illustration of how our Hero for 2019 goes about his development and testing work for his product line. Like a fine wine, it takes time to ensure that the finished product, whether it’s hardware or a firmware update like in this instance, is working as the higher level block diagrams are intended for it to.
Hans states, “My theory is, that the first PTT signal, at power-up, when coincident with all those nasty spikes at switch on (via the toggle switch), and with the PA circuit not yet settled down (all its capacitors charged up, solid state Rx/Tx switching in stable state, etc), creates the right conditions for catastrophic positive feedback in the PA to set up a huge spurious oscillation which is sufficient to self-destruct, via the explosion of one of the transistors. This does NOT occur in my normal power-up sequence via the on/off button of the power supply. Neither does it occur if I switch off with the toggle switch, wait a second, then switch on again. It only occurred when I switched on and off quickly.” The hand diagram above illustrates his theory of the self-destructing PA transistor.
This does NOT occur in my normal power-up sequence via the on/off button of the power supply. Neither does it occur if I switch off with the toggle switch, wait a second, then switch on again. It only occurred when I switched on and off quickly.Hans G0UPL
The solution? He says it’s an easy fix. “This situation can be resolved very simply by adding a 10K resistor (value entirely uncritical) between the RX signal and +5V. When the processor pins are floating while the processor is starting up, the RX signal is therefore pulled to +5V, until the processor has started and is ready to take over the job. In this fragment of the schematic (below) the additional resistor is shown in the yellow box. I simply soldered it between IC3 pins 13 and 14 which is convenient and easy.” The diagram below illustrates the remedy shown in yellow.
Hans told me by e-mail that, “The QCX + 50W PA is now back in order and I had 9 nice QSOs this morning, with YL Elvira ZA1EM, then E74LZ, UR5MUY, IK7XJA, LZ1HDA, OM3CAZ, R7BW, EW8CP and RW3KE.” So a 10K resistor plus the workbench savvy with a new modern oscilloscope came to the rescue.
The 50W Power Amplifier is a new product that QRP Labs has in very late development. No, it’s actually almost ready to announce with this final change. Hans wrote me today, “Yes, This 50W PA is a new product…This 50W amp is designed as a low cost single-band amplifier for the QCX (which is my flagship 5W CW transceiver http://qrp-labs.com/qcx ).”
The description of the new 50W amplifier was sent to me earlier today and should approximate what will be on the QRP Labs website (always subject to last minute changes, of course). Hans says he is finalizing the manual now and expects an official announcement in a week or so from today. So watch his website for the official announcement. The description is in Hans’ words to me by e-mail earlier today.
This 50W Amplifier includes the Low Pass Filter. It can be built for any of 40, 30 or 20m using the supplied components in the kit and therefore covers 95% of QCX owners. Any other bands would be possible too if suitable inductors and capacitors were substituted in the Low Pass Filter.
The amp kit also includes two substantial heatsinks, which are the same design of custom-made heatsink I use in my 10W Linear kit http://qrp-labs.com/linear. Each heatsink is black anodized aluminium and sized 130 x 28mm, with 25mm fins. ALL the connectors are also included in the kit.
A key feature of the amplifier kit is that it has solid state PIN diode Transmit/Receive switching, which is fast, reliable, low cost and silky smooth quiet… it enables full break-in operation (QSK) which is very important for many CW operators (hearing the band during the tiny gaps between your own dits and dahs). Perfecting the transmit/receive switching took 80% of the development time of the kit.
I have used the prototype for over 500 QSOs over the summer on 40m, working from US to New Zealand, Japan, Northern Europe to Middle East. With band conditions in the doldrums they are, or if people wish to have a sked with a friend at a particular time and location, that little extra power can be very useful! QRP has its place, QRO does too.
The custom-manufactured enclosure kit is extruded black anodized aluminium, size 130 x 63 x 25mm and the heatsinks bolt on the top. On the rear are BNC in and out connectors, DC power connector, and a jack for the PTT signal from the QCX. It is designed to match the QCX but could easily be used for other QRP CW rigs too; it may even work well in Linear operation (with the bias adjusted correctly) but this remains to be seen and tested.
This is the type of bench work that great designers go through, largely unbeknownst to amateur radio operators who purchase their products. Of course, there are issues that get by even the most careful workbench. But here’s a case of precisely why the corporate donors to the Homebrew Heroes Award program have chosen to participate: to give our recipient tools to help that person to do their best work on what they do in the homebrew maker space. To see more of Hans’ illustration of this episode in homebrew development, see his website for a forthcoming video.
Here’s to you, Siglent! And, to Jason Chonko who believed in the HHA program immediately and signed his company on as a sponsor. To see this 200 mhz oscilloscope in action, go to this link.
If you’d like your company’s equipment on the workbench of our next Homebrew Heroe, contact us through the HHA website. We are accepting sponsors for the 2020 HHA now and will announce a new one soon.