HP 4140B pA Meter / DC Voltage Source: Special low currents, special connectors, and various FETs

It is another great auction score, a HP 4140B meter, used widely in the semiconductor industry and automatic test stations. Also handy in the lab to test all kinds of diodes, Zeners etc.

It has two +-100 VDC voltage sources, and a ultra-sensitive pA meter built in.

The pA meter seems to work, but one of the voltage source current limit LEDs flashes, although nothing is connected. This will need some repair. The other voltage source is working just fine, so there is no issue with the control board or DAC at least (one DAC is sourcing the voltage for both voltage outputs).

The current input is using some very unusual and high value range resistors… megaohms, gigaohms! Rarely seen before…

The range resistors are switched by reed switches, but not very common design. The coils are actually at the underside of the board, and no physical contact to the reed case, which could lead to leakage currents in the picoamp range.

There are some (plated) iron rods going through the board. These will get the magnetic field to the reed contacts.

These precision resistors, they don’t seem to come cheap. Maybe HP got a discount at the time… at least it doesn’t appear recommendable to start building such pA meters from scratch yourself… rather get some old used units.

The input assembly uses a dual FET to sense the null current, and the FET is a U401, rather common device. Maybe some nice experimentation or null detector can be done in the future with such designs.

The FET is mounted in the board, within a ground plane, and shielding between and around.

From the top, although there is not much heat generated, generous utilization of space, it could probably made fit to 1/4 of the volume?

The defect of the voltage source, it could be easily traced to the A5 board. This has a track and hold circuit, with a FET input opamp. The 4140B is one of the few instruments that I only touch with gloves inside! Better don’t leave residues and fingerprints on these gigaohm resistors and teflon standoffs.

Turns out the input to the amplifier is good, but the output is defective. A simple LF256H opamp, quite a common part.
Waiting for the spare… but pretty sure that replacing the opamp will fix the A5 board.

Another difficulty, the main connector. Originally, the 4140B came with a set of cables and a connector assembly, but this is mostly lost in some drawers of the previous owners.
So I did a test with a rather temporary assembly, but it is showing the correct currents, so all is good in general.

Finally, I found a cheap triax cable assembly.

The connector, it is gold plated inside, and better don’t touch!

2 thoughts on “HP 4140B pA Meter / DC Voltage Source: Special low currents, special connectors, and various FETs”

  1. Your education shines through: in the article there is mention of a pH meter instead a pA meter.

    Fascinating instrument by the way. I think I have very similar reed relais coils here, maybe even the same vendor. In my case the reed switch itself is inside the coil (standard approach) while your HP has a soft iron core. Should you need one, please let me know.

    1. It is quite interesting that HP used about five types of reed relais in this instrument. There are also some with the red coil and the reed inside. I still remember when I had a single reed contact when I was a child and then I broke it, and it was quite a loss.

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