Arbitrary Timing Pulse Generator

by Madilena Mendiola

Supervisor:  Dr. Brett DePaola

Kansas State University Physics Department  REU Program


This program is funded by the National Science Foundation through grant number PHY-1157044.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Welcome! This page summarizes my research for the Summer of 2014 in the MOTRIMS lab of Dr. Brett DePaola at Kansas State University. 

Project Overview:  We have developed a multi-channel, user programmable timing pulse generator of arbitrary TTL timing signals.  Our device allows the user to specify signal outputs on up to 10 different channels during selected time intervals using a graphical user interface (GUI) and a BeagleBone Black (BBB) computer.  With this pulse generator we can control the timing of multiple lasers, shutters, and other components in our experimental setups. 

Research Description: 

Goals and Need for Device:


·         Need a simple and affordable device that outputs timing signals on multiple channels

·         Turn devices (for example, lasers) off/on

·         Provide timing information to data acquisition system

·         Need a visually intuitive user interface

·         Use a BeagleBone Black computer 


Device Features:




Our graphical user interface (GUI) specifies arbitrary TTL time pulses to be outputted by the BeagleBone Black (BBB) computer.  The time steps can be changed to allow unlimited temporal range.  The GUI has a matrix of buttons, and each button correlates to the signal output for a given time interval and channel number.  Therefore, each column of buttons is correlated to a user-specified time interval, and each row of buttons is correlated to the computer channel that outputs the signal.  Pushing a button attributes a binary value to that button.  Our program looks at each time interval (column) of pushed buttons and represents that collection of buttons with a single numerical value.  Each column heading (time) and column value (aggregate buttons’ status) uniquely defines the logic level for all channels at that time step.  These settings can be saved and retrieved, and this information is then processed and outputted by the BBB and sent to our experiment.




The BBB is attached to the data acquisition computer’s USB port.  The data acquisition computer becomes the user interface to the BBB. 


The BBB is a computer with an ARM processor and two PRUs.  It operates in Linux, a flexible operating system, and the flavor of Linux we used in this project is Ubuntu. 


There are a large number of general purpose Input and Output ports.  We have 10 output channels because one PRU of the BBB has 8 physical output pins and the other has 2 pins. 


The BBB’s output signal is based on 3.3 V TTL logic.  Therefore, level shifters are used to convert the outputs to 5 V TTL logic which is more convenient for laboratory use.


The minimum width you can have is the time delay of one inverter.  In order to generate multiple pulses in quick succession, we would have to utilize two channels and connect them with an AND logic gate after a series of inverters.   


Why did we want to use a BBB?


Unlike the National Instruments device which we had used previously in our lab, our BBB board can hang off any type of computer – or even be operated stand-alone with its own keyboard, mouse, and monitor if we so desire.  Also, National Instruments’ LABVIEW is expensive, whereas Python, the programming language used in this project, is free on all platforms.


In considering Arduino, it doesn’t have a GUI package, and its clock speed is too slow (~16 MHz) whereas the BBB’s processor has a clock speed of 1 GHz and its PRUs have a clock speed of 200 MHz.


By having the BBB’s PRUs process the outputs of the G.U.I. interface, we eliminate interrupt issues. 


The BBB is affordable!  Ours costs $45 and the most recent version is $52.   




The device is a convenient tool for controlling the timing of optical pulses, especially in multi- laser experiments, like those involving trapping and cooling of atoms and molecules.  In our experiment, the BBB sends a signal to an Acoustical Optical Modulator which essentially turns on and off the lasers that my lab partner, John Lyons, is building. 


The code is undergoing some revisions but will soon be available here.


The Graphical User Interface and Corresponding Signal Output:





The BeagleBone Black:




Final Presentation: 
Click here to download my presentation in PowerPoint and pdf format of my poster.

Final Report: We are in the process of publishing a paper on our work.  It shall be uploaded here soon.

About Me:  I am entering my senior year as a physics major at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA. 

Useful Links: 

American Physical Society Statements on Ethics

American Institute of Physics