For the past couple of days I’ve been exploring variations on the Blinky EKG project, looking at alternative approaches.
For example, I looked at the possibility of eliminating the most expensive part (the instrumentation amp), and decided that building my own instrumentation amp out of op amps and discrete resistors was unlikely to be reliable. I discovered (after doing calculations for 2-op-amp and 3-op-amp designs) that 1% tolerance on the resistors would produce poor common-mode rejection. In Common-mode noise in EKG, I reported measurements of the common-mode noise with a fairly short twisted-pair connection to the EKG electrodes (close to a best-case scenario). I concluded that the common-mode noise was way too large for using unmatched resistors to be a reasonable design, and using an integrated instrumentation amp is still a good choice.
Yesterday, I tried turning the question around? Could I eliminate the op-amp chip? Currently, I’m using the op amp for two things: to provide a unity-gain buffer to make the reference voltage source between the power rails, and to do second-stage amplification after a high-pass filter removes the DC offset. To eliminate the op-amp chip, I need to replace both these functions.
Replacing the unity-gain buffer seems fairly easy—I could use a low-drop-out linear regulator to generate the reference voltage instead of a voltage divider and unity-gain buffer, which would be somewhat smaller and cheaper (11¢ rather than 25¢ in 100s). I didn’t have an LDO linear regulator at home, so I tried using a TL431ILP voltage reference instead. Unfortunately, it provides very little current, and was unable to maintain the desired voltage when hooked up to the reference voltage input of the instrumentation amp. I believe that a part like the LM317L would work fine, though, and I may want to test that at some point.
Removing the second-stage amplifier is more problematic. I can set the gain of the instrumentation amp up to 2000 or 2500 easily, but any DC component in the input differential signal results in saturating the amplifier (with a 6v output range, and a 1mV AC signal, we’d need the DC bias to be less than 1mV also to avoid hitting the power rails). I tried putting high-pass filters in front of the instrumentation amp, but with the long time constants needed to avoid filtering out the EKG signal, the filters never settled to within 1mV of each other, and the instrumentation amplifier always saturated.
So I need to keep the first-stage gain small enough to avoid saturation, which means I need a second-stage amplifier. I could use a single op amp for the second stage and a low-drop-out regulator for the reference voltage, which would produce a cleaner output signal (since my voltage-divider-plus-unity-gain-buffer reference introduces noise from the power lines). The MCP6001 single op amp is only 18¢ in 100s (rather than 25¢ for the MCP6002 dual op-amp), but the MCP6001 is only available as a surface-mount component, which I think is inappropriate for a first soldering project. The MCP6001 + LM317L would cost about 4¢ more than the MCP6002.
I considered redesigning the Blinky EKG to use the LM317L voltage regulator and the MCP6002, even though half the MCP6002 would be unused, but the LM317L needs a 1.5mA load to maintain regulation, and that seems like a lot for a battery operated device—more than the op amp or the instrumentation amp use (though less than the LED when it is lit). Even using a TL431ILPR voltage reference (10¢ in 100s) and the unity-gain buffer would only need 1mA, and would save one resistor. There are lower-current voltage references, like the LM385, but they cost a lot more (42¢ in 100s).
The non-rechargeable CR2032 batteries I’ve been using for the Blinky EKG have about a 225 mAh capacity, and cost about 19¢ in 100s (but the design needs 2, so 39¢). I could probably get about a 100-hour life with the present Blinky EKG design—I need to measure the current and the duty cycle of the LED to get a better estimate.
The Blinky EKG weighs about 20g (not counting the wires to the electrodes), which is a bit heavy for a pendant or brooch. Most of the weight is in the batteries, but a lighter battery would give up a lot of running time. The smaller batteries also cost a lot more, probably because Digikey only buys them in quantities around 10,000 rather than in the millions. (From other suppliers CR2032 batteries cost about 60¢ in 100s, not under 20¢).
It has been good to fool around with the Blinky EKG design, as it has gotten me to think a bit about design issues other than the first can-I-get-it-to-work one. I rarely get my students past that point in their thinking, and I’m not sure how I would do so, as there is always so much time pressure to cover new stuff, that they get very little time to tinker with designs.