Tag Archives: msp430

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.

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

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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.

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.

Divergence meter progress

One project which I’ve been working on since about October and just got around to creating a project page for is the divergence meter.

There’s not a lot to see there yet, but I’ve recorded my notes on what the design needs and the outline for the control and power supply module.  I ordered the PCB in early December in the hopes that they would be available for me to work on while in Wauwatosa during the semester break.  That didn’t pan out, so unfortunately the whole project won’t move until next week, when I return to Houghton and can get my boards from the mailbox.

My batch of nixie tubes arrived earlier than expected, however, and I got the components to populate the board in mid-November.  All I need is the boards and some time to solder, while hoping I don’t completely botch the job of soldering a 38-TSOP package, especially since that chip (the MSP430F2272) cost me $5.  Photos follow.

One I find the time to assemble the control board, the software should come together pretty quickly.  Just a matter of time now..