Tag Archives: hardware

Matrioshka brains and IPv6: a thought experiment

Nich (one of my roommates) mentioned recently that discussion in his computer networking course this semester turned to IPv6 in a recent session, and we spent a short while coming up with interesting ways to consider the size of the IPv6 address pool.

Assuming 2128 available addresses (an overestimate since some number of them are reserved for certain uses and are not publicly routable), for example, there are more IPv6 addresses than there are (estimated) grains of sand on Earth by a factor of approximately \( 3 \times 10^{14} \) (Wolfram|Alpha says there are between 1020 and 1024 grains of sand on Earth).

A Matrioshka brain?

While Nich quickly lost interest in this diversion into math, I started venturing into cosmic scales to find numbers that compare to that very large address space. I eventually started attempting to do things with the total mass of the Solar System, at which point I made the connection to a Matrioshka brain.

“A what?” you might say. A Matrioshka brain is a megastructure composed of multiple nested Dyson spheres, themselves megastructures of orbiting solar-power satellites in density sufficient to capture most of a star’s energy output. A Matrioshka brain uses the captured energy to power computation at an incredible scale, probably to run an uploaded version of something evolved from contemporary civilization (compared to a more classical use of powering a laser death ray or something). Random note: a civilization capable of building a Dyson sphere would be at least Type II on the Kardashev scale. I find Charlie Stross’ novel Accelerando to be a particularly vivid example, beginning in a recognizable near-future sort of setting and eventually progressing into a Matrioshka brain-based civilization.

While the typical depiction of a Dyson sphere is a solid shell, it’s much more practical to build a swam of individual devices that together form a sort of soft shell, and this is how it’s approached in Accelerando, where the Solar System’s non-Solar mass is converted into “computronium”, effectively a Dyson swarm of processors with integrated thermal generators. By receiving energy from the sunward side and radiating waste heat to the next layer out, computation may be performed.

Let’s calculate

Okay, we’ve gotten definitions out of the way. Now, what I was actually pondering: how does the number of routable IPv6 addresses compare to an estimate of the number of computing devices there might be in a Matrioshka brain? That is, would IPv6 be sufficient as a routing protocol for such a network, and how many devices might that be?

A silicon wafer used for manufacturing electronics, looking into the near future, has a diameter of 450 millimeters and thickness of 925 micrometers (450mm wafers are not yet common, but mass-production processes for this size are being developed as the next standard). These wafers are effectively pure crystals of elemental (that is, monocrystalline) silicon, which are processed to become semiconductor integrated circuits. Our first target, then, will be to determine the mass of an ideal 450mm wafer.

First, we’ll need the volume of that wafer (since I was unable to find a precise number for a typical wafer’s mass):
$$ \pi \times \left( \frac{450 \;\mathrm{mm}}{2} \right)^2 \times 925 \;\mathrm{\mu m} = 147115 \;\mathrm{mm^3} $$
Given the wafer’s volume, we then need to find its density in order to calculate its mass. I’m no chemist, but I know enough to be dangerous in this instance. A little bit of research reveals that silicon crystals have the same structure as diamond, which is known as diamond cubic. It looks something like this:

Silicon crystal structure.

Now, this diagram is rather difficult to make sense of, and I struggled with a way to estimate the number of atoms in a given volume from that. A little more searching revealed a handy reference in a materials science textbook, however. The example I’ve linked here notes that there are 8 atoms per unit cell, which puts us in a useful position for further computation. Given that, the only remaining question is how large each unit cell is. That turns out to be provided by the crystal’s lattice constant.
According to the above reference, and supported by the same information from the ever-useful HyperPhysics, the lattice constant of silicon is 0.543 nanometers. With this knowledge in hand, we can compute the average volume per atom in a silicon crystal, since the crystal structure fits 8 atoms into a cube with sides 0.543 nanometers long.

$$ \frac{0.543^3 \mathrm{\frac{nm^3}{cell}}}{8 \mathrm{\frac{atoms}{cell}}} = .02001 \mathrm{\frac{nm^3}{atom}} $$

Now that we know the amount of space each atom (on average) takes up in this crystal, we can use the atomic mass of silicon to compute the density. Silicon’s atomic mass is 28.0855 atomic mass units, or about \( 4.66371 \times 10^{-23} \) grams.

$$ \frac{4.66371 \times 10^{-23} \mathrm{\frac{g}{atom}}}{.02001 \mathrm{\frac{nm^3}{atom}}} = 2.3307 \mathrm{\frac{g}{cm^3}} $$

Thus, we can easily compute the mass of a single wafer, given the volume we computed earlier.

$$ \frac{147115 \;\mathrm{mm}^3}{1000 \frac{mm^3}{cm^3}} \times 2.3307 \frac{g}{\mathrm{cm}^3} = 342.881 \;\mathrm{g} $$

Continue reading Matrioshka brains and IPv6: a thought experiment

MAX5214 Eval Board

I caught on to a promotion from AVNet last week, in which one may get a free MAX5214 eval board (available through August 31), so hopped on it because really, why wouldn’t I turn down free hardware? I promptly forgot about it until today, when a box arrived from AVNet.

What’s on the board

The board features four Maxim ICs:

  • MAX8510– small low-power LDO.  Not terribly interesting.
  • MAXQ622– 16-bit microcontroller with USB.  I didn’t even know Maxim make microcontrollers!
  • MAX5214– 14-bit SPI DAC. The most interesting part.
  • MAX6133– precision 3V LDO (provides supply for the DAC)

The MAXQ622 micro (U2) is connected to a USB mini-B port for data, and USB also supplies power for the 5V rail.  The MAX8510 (U4) supplies power for the microcontroller and also the MAX6133 (U3).  The microcontroller acts as a USB bridge to the MAX5214 DAC (U1), which it communicates with over SPI.  The SPI signals are also broken out to a 4-pin header (J4).


The software included with the board is fairly straightforward, providing a small variety of waveforms that can be generated. It’s best demonstrated photographically, as below. Those familiar with National Instruments’ LabView environment will probably recognize that this interface is actually just a LabView VI (Virtual Instrument).


Rather more interesting than the stock software is the possibility of reprogramming the microcontroller. Looking at the board photos, we can see that there’s a header that breaks out the JTAG signals. With the right tools, it shouldn’t be very difficult to write a custom firmware to open up a communication protocol to the device (perhaps change its device class to a USB CDC for easier interfacing). Reprogramming the device requires some sort of JTAG adapter, but I can probably make a Bus Pirate do the job.

With some custom software, this could become a handy little function generator- its precision is good and it has a handy USB connection. On the downside, the slew rate on the DAC is not anything special (0.5V/µs, -3dB bandwidth is 100 kHz), and its output current rating is pretty pathetic (5 mA typical). With a unity-gain amplifier on the output though, it could easily drive decent loads and act as a handy low-cost waveform generator. Let’s get hacking?

A divergence meter note

Somebody had asked me about the schematics for my divergence meter project.  All the design files are in the mercurial repository on Bitbucket, but here’s a high-resolution capture of the schematic for those unable or unwilling to use Eagle to view the schematic: dm-rev1.1.png.  Be advised that this version of the schematic does not reflect the current design, as I have not updated it with a FET driver per my last post on this project.

On the actual project front, I haven’t been able to test the FET driver bodge yet.  Maybe next weekend..

Divergence meter: high-voltage supply and FET drivers

I got some time to work on the divergence meter project more, now that the new board revision is in.  I assembled the boost converter portion of the circuit and plugged in a signal generator to see what sort of performance I can get out of it.  The bad news: I was rather dumb in choosing a FET, so the one I have is fast, but can’t be driven fully on with my 3.3V MSP430.  Good news is that with 5V PWM input to the FET, I was able to handily get 190V on the Nixie supply rail.

Looking at possible FET replacements, I discovered that my choice of part, the IRFD220, appears to be the only MOSFET that Mouser sell that’s available in a 4-pin DIP package.  Since it seems incredibly wasteful to create another board revision at this point, I went ahead with designing a daughterboard to plug in where the FET currently does.

I got some ICL7667 FET driver samples from Maxim and have assembled this unit onto some perfboard, but have not yet tested it.  Given I was driving the FET with a 9V square wave while testing, it’s possible that I blew out the timer output to the FET on my microcontroller while testing.  Next time I get to work on this, I’ll be exercising that output to see if I blew it with high voltages, and connecting up the perfboard driver to try the high voltage supply all driven on-board.

Board with assembled power supplies.
Assembled supplies before testing.


Some ICs on perfboard with four wires leaving the board, labeled "GND", "PWM IN", "+9V", and "FET IN".
FET driver bodge assembled on perfboard. Connections are annotated.

Rewriting SPD

I recently pulled a few SDR (133 MHz) SO-DIMMs out of an old computer.  They sat on my desk for a few days until I came up with a silly idea for something to do with them: rewrite the SPD information to make them only semi-functional- with incorrect timing information, the memory might work intermittently or not at all.


My sacrificial SO-DIMM.

Most reasonably modern memory modules have a small amount of onboard persistent memory to allow the host (eg your PC) to automatically configure it.  This information is the Serial Presence Detect, or SPD, and it includes information on the type of memory, the timings it requires for correct operation, and some information about the manufacturer.  (I’ve got a copy of the exact specification mirrored here: SPDSDRAM1.2a.)  If I could rewrite the SPD on one of these DIMMs, I could find values that make it work intermittently or not at all, or even report a different size (by modifying the row and column address width parameters).

The SPD memory communicates with the host via SMBus, which is compatible with I2C for my purposes.

The job

Pad Signal
140 VSS (ground)
141 SDA (I2C data)
142 SCL (I2C clock)
143 VCC (+5 Volts)

The hardest part of this quest was simply connecting wires to the DIMM in order to communicate with the SPD ROM.  I gutted a PATA ribbon cable for its narrow-gauge wire and carefully soldered them onto the pads on the DIMM.  Per information at pinouts.ru, I knew I needed four connections, given in the table to the left.

Wires soldered to pads on a SO-DIMM with hot glue on top.
Soldering closeup. Tenuous connections led me to put globs of glue on top to hold everything together.

Note that the pads are labeled on this DIMM, with pad 1 on the left side, and 143 on the right (the label for 143 is visible in the above photo), so the visible side of the board in this photo contains all the odd-numbered pads.  The opposite side of the board has the even-numbered ones, 2-144.  With the tight-pitch soldering done, I put a few globs of hot glue on to keep the wires from coming off again.

DIMM with wires connected to headers on another circuit board.
Connections between the DIMM and Bus Pirate.

With good electrical connections to the I2C lines on the DIMM, it became a simple matter of powering it up and trying to communicate.  I connected everything to my Bus Pirate and scanned for devices:

Searching 7bit I2C address space.
Found devices at:
0x60(0x30 W) 0xA0(0x50 W) 0xA1(0x50 R)

The bus scan returns two devices, with addresses 0x30 (write-only) and 0x50 (read-write).  The presence of a device with address 0x50 is expected, as SPD memories (per the specification) are always assigned addresses in the range 0x50-0x57.  The low three bits of the address are set by the AS0, AS1 and AS2 connections on the DIMM, with the intention that the host assign different values to these lines for each DIMM slot it has.  Since I left those unconnected, it is reasonable that they are all low, yielding an address of 0x50.

A device with address 0x30 is interesting, and indicates that this memory may be writable.  As a first test, however, I read some data out to verify everything was working:

I2C>[0xa0 0][0xa1 rrr]
READ: 0x80 ACK
READ: 0x08 ACK
READ: 0x04 ACK

I write 0 to address 0xA0 to set the memory’s address pointer, and read out the first three bytes.  The values (0x80 0x08 0x04) agree with what I expect, indicating the memory has 128 bytes written, is 256 bytes in total, and is type 4 (SDRAM).

Unfortunately, I could only read data out, not write anything, so the ultimate goal of this experiment was not reached.  Attempts to write anywhere in the SPD regions were NACKed (the device returned failure):

I2C>[0xA0 0 0]
I2C>[0x50 0 0]
WRITE: 0x50

In the above block, I attempted to write zero to the first byte in memory, which was NACKed.  Since that failed, I tried the same commands on address 0x30, with the same effect.

With that, I admitted failure on the original goal of rewriting the SPD.  A possible further attempt to at least program unusual values to a DIMM could involve replacing the EEPROM with a new one which I know is programmable.  Suitable devices are plentiful- one possible part is Atmel’s AT24C02C, which is available in several packages (PDIP being most useful for silly hacks like this project, simply because it’s easy to work with), and costs only 30 cents per unit in small quantities.

D-meter updates

I’ve been able to do some more work on the divergence meter now. The university’s labs made short work of the surface-mount soldering, but there were some hitches in the assembly and testing phase, in which I discovered some of the part footprints were wrong, and it was a bit of trouble getting the programmer working.

I was able to work around most of the bad footprints, but some of them were barely salvageable, since the through-holes were too small. I was able to drill them out on the drill press in the lab, but that left me with very small contact areas to solder to, so I had a few hideous solder joints.

After getting the power supply portions of the board soldered came getting the MSP430 talking to my MSP430 Launchpad, which I’m using as a programmer. Initial attempts to program the micro were met with silence (and mspdebug reporting no response from the target), but the problem turned out to be due to using cables that were too long- I had simply clipped test leads onto the relevant headers, yielding a programming cable that was around 1 meter long, while the MSP430 Hardware Tools User’s Guide (SLAU278) indicates that a programming cable should not exceed 20 cm in length. I assembled a shorter cable in response (by soldering a few wires onto the leads of a female 0.1″ socket) and all was well.

The most recent snag in assembly was the discovery that I had botched some of the MSP430’s outputs. I had connected the boost converter’s PWM input to Timer A output 0 on the micro, but I discovered while writing the code to control the boost converter that it’s impossible to output PWM on output module 0, due to the assignment of SFRs for timer control. The user’s manual for the chip even mentions this, but I simply failed to appreciate it.

I could have cut the a few traces and performed a blue wire fix, but it seemed like a very poor solution, and I was still concerned about the poor contact on the other vias I had to drill out, so I bit the bullet and created a new revision of the board with correct footprints for all the parts, and a more comprehensive ground plane (hopefully reducing inductive spiking on the optocoupler control lines). I’ve now sent revision 1.1 out to be made, so improved boards will be here in a few weeks. Until then, I’ll be working on the software a bit more, and hopefully updating this post with photographs.