Sunday, October 1, 2023

Resurrecting my FE-5680A Rubidium frequency reference

Fig 1:
The Hammond 1590 aluminum case
housing the FE-5860A rubidium osc-
oscillator and other circuitry - the
markings faded by time and heat.
Click on the image for a larger version.
Recently I was getting ready for the October 14, 2023 eclipse, so I pulled out my two 10 MHz rubidium frequency references (doesn't everyone have at least one?) as I would need an accurate and (especially) stable frequency reference for transmitting:  The details of what, why and how will be discussed in a post to be added in the near future.

The first of these - my Efratom LP-101 - fired up just fine, despite having seen several years of inactivity.  After letting it warm up for a few hours I dialed it in against my HP Z3801 GPSDO and was able to get it to hold to better than 5E-11 without difficulty.

My other rubidium frequency reference - the FEI FE-5680A - was another matter:  At first, it seemed to power up just fine:  I was using my dual-trace oscilloscope, feeding the 'Z3801 into channel 1 and the '5680A into channel 2 and watching the waveforms "slide" past each other - and when they stop moving (or move very, very slow) then you know things are working properly:  See Figure 2, below, for an example of this.

That did happen for the '5680A - but only for a moment:  After a few 10s of seconds of the two waveforms being stationary with respect to each other, the waveform of the '5680A suddenly took off and the frequency started "searching" back and forth, reaching only as high as a few Hz below exactly 10 MHz and swinging well over 100 Hz below that.

My first thought was something along the lines of "Drat, the oven oscillator has drifted off frequency..."

Fig 2:
Oscillogram showing the GPS reference (red)
and the FE-5680A (yellow) 10 MHz signals
atop each other.  Timing how long it takes for the
two waveforms "slide" past each other (e.g. drift
one whole cycle) allows long-term frequency
measurement and comparison.
Click on the image for a larger version.

As it turns out, that was exactly what had happened.


 I've written a bit more about the aforementioned rubidium frequency references, and you can read about them in the links below:

Oscillator out of range

While it is the "physics package" (the tube with the rubidium magic inside) that determines the ultimate frequency (6834683612 Hz, to be precise) it is not the physics package that generates this frequency, but rather another oscillator (or oscillators) that produce energy at that 6.834682612 GHz frequency, inject it into the cavity with the rubidium lamp and detect a slight change in intensity when it crosses the atomic resonance.

In this unit, there is a crystal oscillator that does this, using digital voodoo to produce that magic 6.834682612 GHz signal to divine the hyperfine transition.  This oscillator is "ovenized" - which is to say, the crystal and some of the critical components are under a piece of insulating foam, and attached to the crystal itself is a piece of ceramic semiconductor material - a PTC (positive temperature coefficient) thermistor - that acts as a heater:  When power is applied, it produces heat - but when it gets to a certain temperature the resistance increases, reducing the current consumption and the thermal input and the temperature eventually stabilizes.

Because we have the rubidium cell itself to determine our "exact" frequency, this oven and crystal oscillator need only be "somewhat" stable intrinsically:  It's enough simply to have it "not drift very much" with temperature as small amounts of frequency change can be compensated, so neither the crystal oven - or the crystal contained within - need to be "exact".

Fig 3:
The FE-5680A itself, in the lid of the
case of the 1590 box to provide heat-
sinking.  As you can see, I've had this
unit open before!
Click on the image for a larger version.
What is required is that this oscillator - which is "pullable" (that is, its precise frequency is tuned electronically) must be capable of covering the exact frequency required in its tuning range:  If this can't happen, it cannot be "locked" to the comparison circuitry of the rubidium cell.

The give-away was that as the unit warmed up, it did lock, but only briefly:  After a brief moment, it suddenly unlocked as the crystal warmed up and drifted low in frequency, beyond the range of the electronic tuning.

Taking the unit apart I quickly spotted the crystal oscillator under the foam and powering it up again, I kept the foam in place and watched it lock - and then unlock again:  Lifting the foam, I touched the hot crystal with my finger to draw heat away and the unit briefly re-locked.  Monitoring with a test set, I adjusted the variable capacitor next to the crystal and quickly found the point of minimum capacitance (highest frequency) and after replacing the foam, the unit re-locked - and stayed in lock.

Bringing it up to frequency

This particular '5680A is probably about 25 years old - having been a pull from service (likely at a cell phone site) and eventually finding its way onto EvilBay as surplus electronics.  Since I've owned it, it's also seen other service - having been used twice in in ground stations used for geostationary satellite service as a stable frequency reference, adding another 3-4 years to its "on" time.

As quartz crystals age, they inevitably change frequency:  In general, they tend to drift upwards if they are overdriven and slowly shed material - but this practice is pretty rare these days - so they seem to tend to drift downwards in frequency with normal aging of the crystal and nano-scale changes in the lattice that continue after the quartz is grown and cut:  Operating at elevated temperature - as in an oven - tends to accelerate this effect.

By adjusting the trimmer capacitor and noting the instantaneous frequency (e.g. adjusting it mechanically before the slower electronic tuning could take effect) I could see that I was right at the ragged edge of being able to net the crystal oscillator's tuning range with the variable capacitor at its extreme low end, so I needed to raise the natural frequency a bit more.

If you need to lower a crystal's frequency, you have several options:

  • Place an inductor in series with the crystal.  This will lower the crystal's in-circuit frequency of operation, but since doing so generally involves physically breaking an electrical connection to insert a component, this is can be rather awkward to do.
Fig 4:
The tip of the screwdriver pointing at the added 2.2uH
surface-mount inductor:  It's the black-ish component
at sort of a diagonal angle, wired across the two
crystal leads.
Click on the image for a larger version.
  • Place a capacitor across the crystal.  Adding a few 10s of pF of extra capacitance can lower a crystal's frequency by several 10s or hundreds of ppm (parts-per million), depending on the nature of the crystal and the circuit.

Since the electrical "opposite" of a capacitor is an inductor, the above can be reversed if you need to raise the frequency of a crystal:

  • Insert a capacitor in series with the crystal.  This is a very common way to adjust a crystal's frequency - and it may be how this oscillator was constructed.  As with the inductor, adding this component - where none existed - would involve breaking a connection to insert the device - not particularly convenient to do.
  • Place an inductor across the crystal.  Typically the inductance required to have an effect will have an impedance of hundreds of ohms at the operating frequency, but this - like the addition of a capacitor across a crystal to lower the frequency - is easier to do since we don't have to cut any circuit board traces.
With either method of tweaking the resonance of the oscillator circuit, you can only go so far:  Adding reactance in series or parallel will eventually swamp the crystal itself, potentially making it unreliable in its oscillation - and if that doesn't happen, the "Q" is reduced, potentially reducing the quality of the signal produce and furthermore, taking this to an extreme can reduce the stability overall as it starts to become more temperature sensitive with the added capacitor/inductor than just the crystal, alone.

In theory, I could have placed a smaller fixed capacitor in series with the trimmer capacitor  - or used a lower-value capacitor - but I chose, instead, to install a fixed-value surface-mount inductor in parallel with the crystal.  Prior to doing this I checked to see if there was any circuit voltage across the crystal, but there was none:  Had I seen voltage, adding an inductor would have shorted it out and likely caused the oscillator to stop working and I would have either reconsidered adding a series capacitor somewhere or, more likely I would have placed a large-value (1000pF or larger) capacitor in series with the inductor to block the DC.

"Swagging" it, I put a 2.2uH 0805 surface-mount inductor across the crystal and powered up the '5680A and after a 2-3 minute warm-up time, it locked.   After it had warmed up for about 8 minutes I briefly interrupted the power and while it worked to re-establish lock I saw the frequency swing nearly 100 Hz below and above the target indicating that it was now more less in the center if its electronic tuning range indicating success!  As can be seen from Figure 4, there is likely enough room to have used a small, molded through-hole inductor instead of a surface-mount device.
Fig 5:
The crystal is under the round disk (the PTC
heater) near the top of the picture and the
adjustment capacitor is to the right of the
Click on the image for a larger version.

With a bit of power-cycling and observing the frequency swing while the oscillator was hot, I was able to observing the electronic tuning range and in so-doing, increase the capacitance of the trimmer capacitor very slightly from minimum indicating that I now had at least a little bit of extra adjustment room - but not a lot.  Since this worked the first time I didn't try a lower value of inductance (say, 1uH) to further-raise the oscillator frequency, leaving well-enough alone.

Buttoning everything back up and putting it back in its case, everything still worked (always gratifying!) and I let the unit "burn in" for a few hours.

Comparing it to my HP Z8530 GPS Disciplined oscillator via the oscilloscope (see Figure 2) it took about 20 minutes for the phase to "slide" one entire cycle (360 degrees) indicating that the two 10 MHz signal sources are within better than 10E-10 of each other - not too bad for a device that was last adjusted over a decade ago and as seen about 15000 operational hours since!
* * *
Follow-up:  A few weeks after this was originally posted I had this rubidium reference with me at the Eclipse event as a "hot standby", its frequency being compared to the LPRO-101 - which was the active, on-the-air unit - using an oscilloscope.  This (repaired) unit fired up and locked within 5 minutes at the cool (45F/7C) ambient temperature and remained stable for the several hours that it was powered up.
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