Hacking a Vacuum Fluorescent Display

I’ve had this Vacuum Fluorescent Display – VFD recovered from a broken DVD player in the bits box for quite a while. I shall turn it into a clock and have it display the date at the press of a button, it will also set its time using the internet and the Network Time Protocol over a WiFi connection, I’ll be using a Teensy 3.1 Ardunio compatible micro-controller as this is compact and with the addition of a crystal and button battery has a clock built in.

VFD Digital Clock

This project is a complete replacement of the logic and driver that came in the DVD player, I have also used general electronic components as these are what I have available: 74HC595 8-Bit Shift Registers, ULN2803A Darlington Arrays and PNP transistors, rather than dedicated VFD driver chips, such as the MAX6920AWP+, Philips NE594N or the TI SN75518N available from eBay. If I were undertaking this again I would use a dedicated driver.

How A Vacuum Fluorescent Display Works

The VFD is made up of three layers, starting at the back these are:

  • The Anodes – these are elements of your display that illuminate
  • The Grid – to control a block of Anode elements
  • The Cathode – also referred to as Filaments or the Heater
A VFD showing the white Anode elements with a row of three illuminated, next are the honeycomb lattice grids and the five Cathode filament wires on top.

“The filament is heated, which causes it to release electrons, a process called thermionic emission. Since electrons are negatively charged, if there is a nearby piece of metal with a electrical charge more positive then the electrons from the cathode, the electrons will be attracted to it, allowing a current to flow.

The grid is positioned between the Anode and Cathode. If the grid is driven more negative than the cathode, it repels the electron cloud, which prevents any current from flowing. Since the grid is not heated, it does not emit any electrons itself.

A VFD is basically triode, except the anode is coated with phosphor. Therefore, when the the anode is more positive then the cathode, the free electrons in the cathode’s electron cloud flow towards the anode, and in the process strike the phosphor, exciting it.” Connor Wolf on stackexchange.com

The display brightness is set by the difference in voltage between the Cathode and Anode. The Cathode filament should be set to a low voltage, no more than 4 volts as it is made from thin tungsten wires which can melt very easily. The Anode uses a higher voltage around 12 to 15 volts.

Multiplexing is used to display the output. Each grid controls a fixed number of elements, the element connections are common to each grid. For a clock you will need to loop between the grids selecting the correct elements to display before moving onto the next, the persistence of vision effect maintains an illusion of a complete display.

Further information

Connecting and testing your Vacuum Fluorescent Display

You will need to find the connections that your VFD uses as well as the best voltages to supply. Unless you are really lucky its unlikely you will find a datasheet for your display, so a little reverse engineering is required.

A selection of test hooks are very useful at this stage. You will also need two power supplies, one low voltage for the Cathode filament, I use 3.3 volts supplied from the Teensy/Arduino. For the gates and Anodes a variable DC supply you can adjust from 10 to 20 volts preferably with the current limited to 1mA, in some cases displays from older equipment will need a higher voltage, 50V and above. The ground on both your power supplies will need be connected together.

The flat VFD’s you see in consumer electronics, such as the DVD player, all have a similar layout. The two pairs of outer pins connect to the Cathode and the pins between these divide into two blocks one side will be for the grids and the other for the Anode elements.

First, establish that the pins you suspect are for the filament are indeed so, with your multimeter in continuity (beep) mode you should see a connection when you probe across these pins. Connect your 3.3v supply to these pins, it doesn’t matter which way round.

6N2A4212
VFD Element being illuminated, with 3.3V across the Cathode filaments (red and black connections). with the first grid on the white connection, and third from last element connected to the green.

Next, set your variable power supply to its lower setting and attach one probe to a grid pin, and the other to an Anode element, on my display I started with a pin furthest left and another furthest right, see if anything lights up, at a low voltage this will be rather dim. If an element has lit up has then increase the voltage until the brightness is what you would expect. If nothing lights then first check you have connected a grid and an element not two grids or two elements by choosing different pins. Or if you are reasonably sure then carefully increase the voltage.

When you are driving the display as a clock, the multiplexing will make each element appear dimmer I increased the display voltage to 15 volts to fix that.

VFD Pin mappings for my display
VFD Pin mappings for my display

Now you can map out the grids and elements, on mine, there are eleven grids the first and last grids are for special characters and the rest contain digits. With a Grid connected, go through each element and make notes, each element will have the same connection on each grid, so all the digit elements and special characters/icons have the same pins.

VFD pin numbers for the digits
VFD pin number mapping for the digits

Driving the Display

While the Cathode filaments are permanently on at 3.3V the 12V grid and Anodes require some kind of high voltage level shifter to have the 5V logic output from the Ardunio (or 3.3V logic on the Teensy) switch the 12V required at the display. The method I have used for switching is a NPN, PNP complimentary (Sziklai pair) output.

Transistor Control
Transistor Control

The NPN transistor is the switch controlled by the Ardunio this in turn switches the PNP transistor, the NPN transistor is being used to isolate the Ardunio from the high voltage required for the display. As the current being drawn is very low we only need small signal transistors NPN: BC549 and for the PNP: BC556.

For the PNP transistor to switch off the Base voltage needs to be close to that of the Emitter, as the Ardunio’s 5V logic is nowhere near the 12V used a NPN stage is added so when the Base of the NPN is on this pulls the Base of the PNP low and allows current to flow to the display. There are three resistors, R1 100K limits the current to the base of the NPN transistor to protect the transistor and Adrduino, R2 10K is biasing the output, working as the bottom half of a voltage divider, and R3 10K is both the top half of the voltage divider and pulls the PNP Base high keeping it off when not required.

Transistors as switches, further reading:

To reduce the component count and size of the project I have replaced the NPN transistors and the resistors R1 and R2 with ULN2803A Darlington transistor array, however the PNP transistor remains as the display requires a sinking output to provide a grounded connection to the load through the cathode.

Two of the four drivers, with, from the top, the Registers, Darlington Arrays, and PNP transistors
Two of the four drivers, the other two are underneath. with the Registers, Darlington Arrays, and PNP transistors.

Connecting to the Arduino

The next stage is to connect the 32 pin display to the Arduino. Obviously the micro-controller does not have enough I/O for this, so instead I have used four easy to use 74HC595 8-Bit Shift Registers with only a data, clock and latch to set up, they can be used to extend the number of output pins on the Arduino.

74hc595_serial_schem
74HC595 Serial Connections (click to enlarge)

I have used the ShiftOutX library for my clock, but it helps to look at the Ardunio’s ShiftOut tutorial to see how they work.

Power

To power this Digital Clock I am using a mains to 12V DC brick from some old electronics equipment, I then use a Buck power supply to provide a 5 volt supply for the Teensy and electronics, and for the display a Boost supply to bump the 12V to 15V, search for XL6009 Module on ebay, check that it has the XL6009 rather than the older LM2577 and set the output voltage before connecting the display.

Digital Clock Power Supplies, 5 volts, small board on the right, 12V to 15V from the larger board on the left

The Driver Circuit

Here is a quarter of the driver circuitry, for the 32 pin display I made four of these. You can see that there is an extra transistor, as the Darlington Array has seven inputs/outputs and also note that on the 74HC595 8-Bit Shift Register the Ardunio data pin connects to DS (pin 14)  and the next register in series connects to to Q7S (pin 9) of the previous register.

VFD Driver circuit (click to enlarge)

Software

This demonstration uses the ShiftOutX library. It loops through each grid and each element within that grid, it does not use multiplexing.

This second demonstration counts from 0 to 9999, with the digits right aligned on the display, it uses multiplexing and the display will appear dimmer than before:

Sources and References

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