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Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Tiny and Accurate pH-meter

This electronic circuit is a tiny pH-meter. It is very tiny: 11cm2 including the PSU circuit! The schematic is shown below. It is basically a simple gain/offset circuit with a high impedance input (several giga-Ohm) and frankly the explanation could stop here: anyone with an background in electronics can understand this. But I started to write a webpage about this, so let's try to do it right and describe the schematic.

Juste because it's damn small does not mean that you have to settle down for second best when it comes to performance. The repeatability is around 0.01 pH and the accuracy, while depending on how well you will calibrate it, is around 0.02 pH. The main characteristics are:

  • very small footprint (11cm2)
  • very lightweight
  • pluggable module for easy replacement
  • requires only an external transformer and a display unit to work
  • slope/offset settings
  • repeatability 0.01 pH
  • accuracy 0.02 pH
  • low power
  • low-cost single-sided PCB
  • total unit price (including case and display unit): less than 100 euros.

The circuit input is pin 15 of K1. The probe signal enters IC1 via an RC circuit designed to allow only relatively slow signal variations (and avoid getting parasite HF signals). IC1 is a CMOS op-amp and thus has a very high impedance. The gain of IC1 is adjusted with the potentiometer R14. C2 is there for the amplifier stability. The R5/R11 circuit is the adjustment of the amplifier offset which is necessary for a high-precision application like this (see calibration below).

Once the signal has been amplified it enters an offset circuit built around IC2. IC2 is a more classic TL081 op-amp commonly found in audio devices, among others. The offset is defined by two potentiometers R12 and R13. The first one is on the PCB and the second one on the front panel. This improvement on the original design (single pot) allows the range swept by R13 to be symmetric, albeit smaller than without R12. It can be skipped if you wish (those small SMD trimmers can be damn expensive...). The circuit is designed to provide an average offset of 2V.

After the offset circuit the signal passes through a voltage divider before reaching the display unit. The divider roughly changes the signal range to something that is acceptable for the display. The real setting will be done on the display itself which contains a multiturn trimmer to precisely adjust its input gain.

The voltages for the signal evolve in the circuit as follows:

  • Before IC1: -0.414/+0.414V (this might depend on the electrode used and its age, hence the gain/offset control)
  • After IC1: -2/+2V
  • After IC2: 0-4V
  • After the voltage divider: 0-140mV (roughly)
  • After the on-display trimmer: 0-140mV
  • On the display: 0.00 - 14.00 pH (the display measures mV but the decimal point is placed accordingly to show a 0-14pH range)

As you can see the electrode voltage is symmetric and must undergo a linear transformation to fit the 0-14 pH range. This is all very classic stuff... Note that even if the supply rails are at +/-5V the circuit can cope with a 0-4V signal because the output swing is almost equal to the rails (no 0.7V drop, more around 0.3V IIRC).

A little remark concerning the integrated power supply circuit: it is a very small circuit that supplies a maximum of 50mA. Be careful of you want to add a power LED or something like that as it might be too much for the circuit. Check the total power used by the circuit before adding extras.


The PCB is very small and you are advised to build it with through-hole mounting components if you're not familiar with SMDs. That means start the PCB design from scratch. I personally think that it looks much cooler with a small footprint... No other special remarks concerning the PCB, except that the PCBs that were manufactured were slightly different (see the photos below). This is actually also true for the schematic. No functional difference, but I changed from Protel to Eagle for designing the circuit so I had to reenter the schematic and PCB manually. Hence some differences in layout but this is not a big deal.

Component list
This is the list of components used in this circuit. I only mention the display and probe at this time as the other components are generic. Maybe more info will follow in the future.

A little link to the display unit used in this project. I chose this one because it has a nice 'pH' unit that can be activated on the display.

Another link to the probe used with this circuit (IIRC). Most probes should work but I only tested the circuit with this one.

Random remarks: start with the smallest components, go slow, don't forget to set all the solder bridges correctly on the display unit (what you want is a 0-200mV range, an appropriately set dot and 'pH' shown as the unit). Check your cables,... before powering up.

The cabling diagram of K1 is:
  1. AC 1
  2. GND
  3. +5v OUT (to display)
  4. SIGNAL OUT (to display)
  5. R13 / 2
  6. R14 / 1
  7. -5V OUT
  8. R14 / 3
  9. AC 2
  10. GND (from transformer)
  11. GND (to display)
  12. GND (to BNC input)
  13. R13 / 1
  14. R14 / 2
  15. * 15: INPUT

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