Improving my homemade amateur radio antenna

(This was originally posted on Google+.)

Yesterday I worked a bit on my magnetic loop antenna. More properly called a "small magnetic loop antenna" (or SMLA for short), it basically consists of a long loop of wire connected to a variable capacitor. The loop of wire forms an inductance, which together with the capacitance forms a resonant circuit. So by wiring it appropriately, you can use a SMLA to receive and transmit signals in the SMLA's resonant frequency, which you can change by turning a knob to vary the capacitance.

As you might guess, the more resonant the antenna is, the better it works: the signals in that frequency are amplified more. Also, when the antenna is more resonant it has narrower bandwidth: the energy in the antenna is concentrated into a smaller band of frequencies. The amount of resonance is given by a number called "quality factor" (or Q, for short). Q is affected by the values of the inductance, capacitance, and resistance in the SMLA. In particular, the lower the resistance, the higher Q is. So if you make an SMLA you need to reduce the electric resistance as much as you can to get the best value of Q.

There is another reason why it's important to reduce the electric resistance if you want to make a transmitting SMLA: the antenna's radiation resistance is very small, in the order of milliohms, so any additional resistance reduces the antenna's efficiency dramatically.

People like me, who are used to dealing with continuous currents, would think that it would be enough to use wide-gauge wiring, solder all connections to reduce contact losses, etc. A couple of weeks ago I measured my SMLA's resistance as 50 milliohms, which doesn't sound so bad; however my antenna's Q factor seemed quite low and my transmissions were heard by nobody.

What I'd missed is that alternating currents (and radio waves in a cable are alternating currents) don't travel along the full section of the cable, like continuous currents: there's a phenomenon called "skin effect" by which those currents only travel on the surface of the conductor. The higher the frequency, the shallower the skin: for example, in copper, at 14 MHz, most of the current is concentrated at a depth of less than 17 micrometers.

The first consequence of this is that the resistance of a wire doesn't go down with the square of the diameter of its section as for continuous currents, but linearly with the diameter. So using wide gauge wire doesn't help much. What you need to use instead is flat ribbon or, even better, copper braid: braid has a lot of surface area for its volume, so it should present a low resistance to alternating current.

The second consequence is that you should avoid solder joints: since the current travels on the surface, spots where the surface is tinned will have a lower conductivity than the bare copper surface.

So yesterday I remade the connections between the loop and the capacitor in my SMLA, replacing the 10-AWG wires with copper braid ribbons. I fastened them using screws and washers so that they were pressed against the terminals on the ends of the loop and the capacitor, making sure that as much surface area as possible touches.

This change has apparently raised my SMLA's Q factor: I can work on about 40kHz before having to retune, while before I could use some 60kHz. I hoped that transmit performance would also be improved, but, alas, nobody heard my transmissions the whole day today. I guess my antenna is not good enough yet.

There may be another explanation for this failure to be heard, though. Using a shortwave receiver I could hear spurious signals around the signal I wanted to transmit. Using an RTLSDR dongle I could see the spectrum around the frequency my transceiver was tuned to, and there were lots of spurs and images on transmit. I don't know if it's a fault in the particular transceiver kit I'm using, or whether it's a drawback of the design itself. In any case, this suggests to me that perhaps too much energy is being wasted on those spurs. That's certainly something I'll need to look at again and more carefully.