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Simple DIY ECG + Pulse Oximeter (version 2)

Of the hundreds of projects I’ve shared over the years, none has attracted more attention than my DIY ECG machine on the cheap posted almost 4 years ago. This weekend I re-visited the project and made something I’m excited to share!  The original project was immensely popular, my first featured article on Hack-A-Day, and today “ECG” still represents the second most searched term by people who land on my site. My gmail account also has had 194 incoming emails from people asking details about the project. A lot of it was by frustrated students trying to recreate the project running into trouble because it was somewhat poorly documented. Clearly, it’s a project that a wide range of people are interested in, and I’m happy to revisit it bringing new knowledge and insight to the project. I will do my best to document it thoroughly so anyone can recreate it!

The goal of this project is to collect heartbeat information on a computer with minimal cost and minimal complexity.  I accomplished this with fewer than a dozen components (all of which can be purchased at RadioShack). It serves both as a light-based heartbeat monitor (similar to a pulse oximeter, though it’s not designed to quantitatively measure blood oxygen saturation), and an electrocardiogram (ECG) to visualize electrical activity generated by heart while it contracts. Let’s jump right to the good part – this is what comes out of the machine:

That’s my actual heartbeat. Cool, right? Before I go into how the circuit works, let’s touch on how we measure heartbeat with ECG vs. light (like a pulse oximeter).  To form a heartbeat, the pacemaker region of the heart (called the SA node, which is near the upper right of the heart) begins to fire and the atria (the two top chambers of the heart) contract. The SA node generates a little electrical shock which stimulated a synchronized contraction. This is exactly what defibrillators do when a heart has stopped beating. When a heart attack is occurring and a patient is undergoing ventricular fibrillation, it means that heart muscle cells are contracting randomly and not in unison, so the heart quivers instead of pumping as an organ. Defibrillators synchronize the heart beat with a sudden rush of current over the heart to reset all of the cells to begin firing at the same time (thanks Ron for requesting a more technical description).  If a current is run over the muscle, the cells (cardiomyocytes) all contract at the same time, and blood moves. The AV node (closer to the center of the heart) in combination with a slow conducting pathway (called the bundle of His) control contraction of the ventricles (the really large chambers at the bottom of the heart), which produce the really large spikes we see on an ECG.  To measure ECG, optimally we’d place electrodes on the surface of the heart. Since that would be painful, we do the best we can by measuring voltage changes (often in the mV range) on the surface of the skin. If we amplify it enough, we can visualize it. Depending on where the pads are placed, we can see different regions of the heart contract by their unique electrophysiological signature. ECG requires sticky pads on your chest and is extremely sensitive to small fluctuations in voltage. Alternatively, a pulse oximeter measures blood oxygenation and can monitor heartbeat by clipping onto a finger tip. It does this by shining light through your finger and measuring how much light is absorbed. This goes up and down as blood is pumped through your finger. If you look at the relationship between absorbency in the red vs. infrared wavelengths, you can infer the oxygenation state of the blood. I’m not doing that today because I’m mostly interested in detecting heart beats.

For operation as a pulse oximeter-type optical heartbeat detector (a photoplethysmograph which produces a photoplethysmogram), I use a bright red LED to shine light through my finger and be detected by a phototransistor (bottom left of the diagram). I talk about how this works in more detail in a previous post. Basically the phototransistor acts like a variable resistor which conducts different amounts of current depending on how much light it sees. This changes the voltage above it in a way that changes with heartbeats. If this small signal is used as the input, this device acts like a pulse oximeter.

For operation as an electrocardiograph (ECG), I attach the (in) directly to a lead on my chest. One of them is grounded (it doesn’t matter which for this circuit – if they’re switched the ECG just looks upside down), and the other is recording. In my original article, I used pennies with wires soldered to them taped to my chest as leads. Today, I’m using fancier sticky pads which are a little more conductive. In either case, one lead goes in the center of your chest, and the other goes to your left side under your arm pit. I like these sticky pads because they stick to my skin better than pennies taped on with electrical tape. I got 100 Nikomed Nikotabs EKG Electrodes 0315 on eBay for $5.51 with free shipping (score!). Just gator clip to them and you’re good to go!

In both cases, I need to build a device to amplify small signals. This is accomplished with the following circuit. The core of the circuit is an LM324 quad operational amplifier.  These chips are everywhere, and extremely cheap. It looks like Thai Shine sells 10 for $2.86 (with free shipping). That’s about a quarter each. Nice!  A lot of ECG projects use instrumentation amplifiers like the AD620 (which I have used with fantastic results), but these are expensive (about $5.00 each). The main difference is that instrumentation amplifiers amplify the difference between two points (which reduces noise and probably makes for a better ECG machine), but for today an operational amplifier will do a good enough job amplifying a small signal with respect to ground. I get around the noise issue by some simple filtering techniques. Let’s take a look at the circuit.

This project utilizes one of the op-amps as a virtual ground. One complaint of using op-amps in simple projects is that they often need + and – voltages. Yeah, this could be done with two 9V batteries to generate +9V and -9V, but I think it’s easier to use a single power source (+ and GND). A way to get around that is to use one of the op-amps as a current source and feed it half of the power supply voltage (VCC), and use the output as a virtual ground (allowing VCC to be your + and 0V GND to be your -). For a good description of how to do this intelligently, read the single supply op amps web page. The caveat is that your signals should remain around VCC/2, which can be done if it is decoupled by feeding it through a series capacitor. The project works at 12V or 5V, but was designed for (and has much better output) at 12V. The remaining 3 op-amps of the LM324 serve three unique functions:

STAGE 1: High gain amplifier. The input signals from either the ECG or pulse oximeter are fed into a chain of 3 opamp stages. The first is a preamplifier. The output is decoupled through a series capacitor to place it near VCC/2, and amplified greatly thanks to the 1.8Mohm negative feedback resistor. Changing this value changes initial gain.

STAGE 2: active low-pass filter. The 10kOhm variable resistor lets you adjust the frequency cutoff. The opamp serves as a unity gain current source / voltage follower that has high input impedance when measuring the output f the low-pass filter and reproduces its voltage with a low impedance output. There’s some more information about active filtering on this page. It’s best to look at the output of this stage and adjust the potentiometer until the 60Hz noise (caused by the AC wiring in the walls) is most reduced while the lower-frequency component of your heartbeat is retained. With the oximeter, virtually no noise gets through. Because the ECG signal is much smaller, this filter has to be less aggressive, and this noise is filtered-out by software (more on this later).

STAGE 3: final amplifier with low-pass filter. It has a gain of ~20 (determined by the ratio of the 1.8kOhm to 100Ohm resistors) and lowpass filtering components are provided by the 22uF capacitor across the negative feedback resistor. If you try to run this circuit at 5V and want more gain (more voltage swing), consider increasing the value of the 1.8kOhm resistor (wit the capacitor removed). Once you have a good gain, add different capacitor values until your signal is left but the noise reduced. For 12V, these values work fine. Let’s see it in action!

Now for the second half – getting it into the computer. The cheapest and easiest way to do this is to simply feed the output into a sound card! A sound card is an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) that everybody has and can sample up to 48 thousand samples a second! (overkill for this application) The first thing you should do is add an output potentiometer to allow you to drop the voltage down if it’s too big for the sound card (in the case of the oximeter) but but also allow full-volume in the case of sensitive measurements (like ECG). Then open-up sound editing software (I like GoldWave for Windows or Audacity for Linux, both of which are free) and record the input. You can do filtering (low-pass filter at 40Hz with a sharp cutoff) to further eliminate any noise that may have sneaked through. Re-sample at 1,000 Hz (1kHz) and save the output as a text file and you’re ready to graph it! Check it out.

Here are the results of some actual data recorded and processed with the method shown in the video. let’s look at the pulse oximeter first.

That looks pretty good, certainly enough for heartbeat detection. There’s obvious room for improvement, but as a proof of concept it’s clearly working. Let’s switch gears and look at the ECG. It’s much more challenging because it’s signal is a couple orders of magnitude smaller than the pulse oximeter, so a lot more noise gets through. Filtering it out offers dramatic improvements!

Here’s the code I used to generate the graphs from the text files that GoldWave saves. It requires Python, Matplotlib (pylab), and Numpy. In my case, I’m using 32-bit 2.6 versions of everything.

# DIY Sound Card ECG/Pulse Oximeter
# by Scott Harden (2013) http://www.SWHarden.com

import pylab
import numpy


data = numpy.array(raw,dtype=float)
data = data-min(data) #make all points positive
data = data/max(data)*100.0 #normalize
times = numpy.array(range(len(data)))/1000.0
pylab.xlabel("Time Elapsed (seconds)")
pylab.ylabel("Amplitude (% max)")
pylab.title("Pulse Oximeter - filtered")

Future directions involve several projects I hope to work on soon. First, it would be cool to miniaturize everything with surface mount technology (SMT) to bring these things down to the size of a postage stamp. Second, improved finger, toe, or ear clips (or even taped-on sensors) over long duration would provide a pretty interesting way to analyze heart rate variability or modulation in response to stress, sleep apnea, etc. Instead of feeding the signal into a computer, one could send it to a micro-controller for processing. I’ve made some darn-good progress making multi-channel cross-platform USB option for getting physiology data into a computer, but have some work still to do. Alternatively, this data could be graphed on a graphical LCD for an all-in-one little device that doesn’t require a computer. Yep, lots of possible projects can use this as a starting point.

Notes about safety: If you’re worried about electrical shock, or unsure of your ability to make a safe device, don’t attempt to build an ECG machine. For an ECG to work, you have to make good electrical contact with your skin near your heart, and some people feel this is potentially dangerous. Actually, some people like to argue about how dangerous it actually is, as seen on Hack-A-Day comments and my previous post comments. Some people have suggested the danger is negligible and pointed-out that it’s similar to inserting ear-bud headphones into your ears. Others have suggested that it’s dangerous and pointed-out that milliamps can kill a person. Others contest that pulses of current are far more dangerous than a continuous applied current. Realists speculate that virtually no current would be delivered by this circuit if it is wired properly. Rational, cautionary people worried about it reduce risk of accidental current by applying bidirectional diodes at the level of the chest leads, which short any current (above 0.7V) similar to that shown here. Electrically-savvy folks would design an optically decoupled solution. Intelligent folks who abstain from arguing on the internet would probably consult the datasheets regarding ECG input protection. In all cases, don’t attach electrical devices to your body unless you are confident in their safety. As a catch-all, I present the ECG circuit for educational purposes only, and state that it may not be safe and should not be replicated  There, will that cover me in court in case someone tapes wires to their chest and plugs them in the wall socket?

LET ME KNOW WHAT YOU THINK! If you make this, I’m especially interested to see how it came out. Take pictures of your projects and send them my way! If you make improvements, or take this project further, I’d be happy to link to it on this page. I hope this page describes the project well enough that anyone can recreate it, regardless of electronics experience. Finally, I hope that people are inspired by the cool things that can be done with surprisingly simple electronics. Get out there, be creative, and go build something cool!

About the author

Scott W Harden

Scott Harden has had a lifelong passion for computer programming and electrical engineering, and recently has become interested in its relationship with biomolecular sciences. He has run a personal website since he was 15, which has changed names from HardenTechnologies.com, to KnightHacker.com, to ScottIsHot.com, to its current SWHarden.com. Scott has been in college for 10 years, with 3 more years to go. He has an AA in Biology (Valencia College), BS in Cell Biology (Union University), MS in Molecular Biology and Microbiology (University of Central Florida), and is currently in a combined DMD (doctor of dental medicine) / PhD (neuroscience) program through the collaboration of the College of Dentistry and College of Medicine (Interdisciplinary Program in Biomedical Science, IDP) at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. In his spare time Scott builds small electrical devices (with an emphasis on radio frequency) and enjoys writing cross-platform open-source software.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.SWHarden.com/blog/2013-04-14-simple-diy-ecg-pulse-oximeter-version-2/