Getting Started With nRF52 MCU in a PCB

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: January 19, 2023  |  Updated: February 1, 2023
nRF52 PCB layout

Most semiconductor manufacturers have developed and released their own line of microcontrollers, and Nordic Semiconductor is no different. One of their best-known products is the nRF52, an RF-capable SoC with an integrated transceiver. This component is small, offers high I/O count, and it has a part number that comes in a fine-pitch BGA package.

In this article, I’ll show a PCB layout example that uses the fine-pitch BGA package version of the nRF52. At the end of the article, you’ll have an opportunity to download the source files for this project . Without further delay, let’s get started with an example PCB layout that includes the nRF52.

For viewers that want to watch the entire design process for this component, we created the following playlist that guides users through the process of using the nRF52 in a PCB layout. Specifically, we cover how to use the high-density (0.35 mm ball pitch) version of this component in a design that requires some HDI design techniques. We’ll also show the entire engineering journey that got us to the final version of our nRF52 module.

 

Front-end Design

The nRF52 comes in a few different packages with small form factors. This chip has become popular as a Bluetooth-capable microcontroller with moderate pin count and standard digital interfaces, including the ability to use USB in the device. The component targets small embedded devices with Bluetooth 5 connectivity.

In this project, the component we will use is the nRF52840-CKAA-R7, a 93-pin WLCSP with BGA footprint. This processor is known for running at low power when not broadcasting, so it is possible to use it with a small battery. We’ll add in some battery regulation and polarity protection circuitry for this system so that it can successfully run with battery power.

nRF52840 WLCSP Footprint

The footprint for the nRF52840-CKAA-R7 is shown below. The measure bar between balls shows that the pitch is 0.35 mm pitch. This is very fine pitch and it will require some design techniques used in HDI designs.

nRF52840-CKAA-R7 footprint
nRF52840-CKAA-R7 footprint.

Other Important Components

We’ll get into the pinout and fanout for this component in one of the sections below. For now, there will be several other components that appear in the design:

The device will initially need to connect to a LiPo battery through a standard 2-pin connector, and we will need to include at least one header to access I/Os and to program the board. The I/O count is larger than we would typically fit onto a single header, so it’s a judgment call as to whether to include a 2nd header only for accessing I/Os. For now, we’ll proceed with the battery connector and a single I/O header, and we can always add another connector later.

Getting Started: Schematics

The schematics for this device are not too complex and all the circuits will fit on a single page. I’ll show different regions of the schematics individually so that the entire design is clear and easy-to-read.

First, let’s look at the power section. In this device, 3V3 power is provided by a low-noise, low-current LDO with 150 mA rated current output. The LDO takes the battery power (VBAT) as an input and converts this to the desired 3V3 output.

nRF52840 power regulator schematics

Based on the net connections for VBAT and VDD1, we see that there are two ways to provide power to the board:

  • Apply 3V3 directly to VDD1, such as through a pin header
  • Apply voltage directly to the VBAT net, also through one of the connectors

In the former, you would only power on the MCU and RTC; there would be no power to the peripherals. In the latter, you would be providing power to the entire system, and now VDD1 would be an output rather than an input.

You’ll notice that there is a 2nd regulator providing 3V3 power for net VDD2. This regulator includes an enable pin, so the device can power up first using VDD1, then the peripherals (in this case, the EEPROM) can be powered up using VDD2. This gives the device the capability to turn off its peripherals when the device is not in use by toggling the VDD2_ENABLE pin. If we had any other peripherals we might want to include in this design that are not central to powering on the device, we would want to connect these to VDD2 instead of VDD1.

Next, let’s look at the nRF52840 connections. These were borrowed from the Nordic dev board and the original set of connections on their components can be accessed in their Altium design files.

nRF52840 schematic

Here I’ve broken out several interfaces, and the supporting circuitry mostly contains reference crystals and some capacitors. The caps range from large case for bulk decoupling, down to small case (0201) for bypassing on the VDD1 rail. There are still plenty of pins leftover in this component, and these could be used for other peripherals. I’ll eventually break some of the additional I/Os and the SPI interface to a pin header as shown later in the video series.

If you take a look at pin E1, you’ll see the antenna connection. Initially, starting from the original schematics and layout in the reference design, this impedance matching network used different output capacitor values. The impedance matching network shown below was determined by reverse engineering the antenna impedance with an online calculator and modifying the matching network so that it is symmetric. Swapping the 0.8 pF output cap in the reference design with the 1.2 pF output cap shown below produces essentially the same performance.

nRF52840 schematic

This essentially concludes the schematic capture portion, and the remaining circuits are simple to implement. We can now move into the PCB layout.

PCB Layout

Once in the PCB layout, we have a few important tasks to complete in order to use the nRF52840 in WLCSP:

  • Determine a stackup and BGA fanout
  • Place the antenna as a printed element
  • Place and route the other ICs so they will not interfere with the RF section

Stackup and Fanout

The main driver of the stackup and fanout strategy is the ball pitch on the nRF52 package. Readers may notice above that the ball pitch is 0.35 mm. The pad size in my footprint is 0.212 mm, which is an appropriate size given the IPC standards on BGA footprints. The diagonal distance across the pads is 0.495 mm. These measurements are shown below.

nRF52840 ball grid array

If we tried to use dog bone fanout with through-hole vias to route into the inner pins, we would only be left with about 1-2 mils of space between the vias and the neighboring pads. This is too small for most fabrication houses to etch properly. It would also require a very small drill size of about 4 mil with an 8 to 9 mil diameter pad. These values are just too small to work with in standard fabrication.

Therefore, I’ve used a via-in-pad fanout with blind and buried vias to reach the inner layers. Because the pad size is about 8.3 mil, we can use 4 mil blind/buried vias with 8 mil pads. To maintain an aspect ratio of 1:2, we would require 4 mil layer thicknesses for our outer layers with blind/buried vias. This would give a total of 6 layers as shown in the stackup below.

nRF52840 stackup

Component and Antenna Placement

After finishing the stackup and fanout, my initial placement for this board is shown below. I’ve included a few polygons for power routing before completing the remaining connections. The initial placement of the 6-pin header was used for programming and reading voltages. The next point to consider is the antenna placement, and finally we can wrap up with I/O breakouts into our connectors.

nRF52840 placement

In this design, we’ll use a printed antenna to send and receive wireless signals. The best location to place a printed antenna for the nRF52 is along the board edge. This will keep the antenna out of the way of the digital section. The antenna connects to pin E1 on the nRF52840.

If you look at the nRF52 reference design, you’ll see that they provide a printed antenna example that can be incorporated into other designs. This antenna is a quarter-wave antenna, and this can be verified by calculating the length of the antenna and comparing with the 2.45 GHz signal’s wavelength in a groundless microstrip configuration. The impedance matching network shown in the schematics above should provide sufficient matching given the differences in the stackup for this board.

nRF52840 antenna placement

SWD Programming Header and I/O Header

If you decide to produce this board, you will need to program it. The nRF52840 documentation provides a guide to programming the device through the SWDIO protocol using only 4 pins:

  • VDD (system power)
  • SWDIO (J2)
  • SWDCLK (H2)
  • GND

Therefore, I’ve swapped out the 1x6 pin header for an SWD header as this is a standard cable used to program many microcontroller boards (I also have some SWD cables in my lab). Note that the nReset pin (K6) is optional for programming, but I’ll include it in the SWD header pinout alongside a VBAT connection. The finalized pinout on my SWD header is shown below.

nRF52840 SWD header

The programmer I prefer to use for this type of device is the PRESTO programmer, which is available from ASIX.net. This programmer supports a long list of devices, including the nRF52840 and some other Nordic products. You’ll have to create custom pinouts for the cable on the PRESTO, but this is simple enough to do with flying leads.

Next, I decided to swap the initially-chosen 1x6 header for a 2x7 header so that I can break out additional I/Os. The header was placed in the top-left corner of the board. I’ve added 22 Ohm series resistors on these I/Os to slow down the signals coming onto the board or leaving the board in case EMI becomes problematic in these interconnects. If it turns out that these are not needed, I can always swap these for 0 Ohm resistors.

nRF52840 header

Finalized Layout

The finalized PCB layout is shown in the image below. I’ve added some logos, set the part number in the lower-right portion of the board, and aligned the resistors on the I/O lines along the lower half of the pin header. I also did some final cleanup on the silkscreen so that all the designators are clear and there is no overlap. At this point, the design has passed a final DRC and it’s ready to produce.

nRF52840 PCB layout

Source Files and Future Revisions

Although the routing could be improved in a few places just to clean up the I/O access, the board will be totally functional and I’m happy with how it turned out. Some additional features that could be added include a USB connector and USB charging management IC so that the device could be charged from the standard 5V bus on a USB plug.

Another component that could be added to the design is a Nordic companion IC that provides WiFi access to nRF52 series MCUs. Last year, in August 2022, Nordic announced the release of its newest iteration of the nRF series: the nRF7002. This SoC offers dual-band WiFi 6 support with ultra-low power consumption as a companion to the nRF52 or nRF53 products. I’ll take a look at this companion IC in an upcoming project and video.

nRF52840 footprint
The nRF7002 companion IC that provides WiFi access for nRF52/nRF53 MCUs. [Source: Nordic Semiconductor]

For now, click on this link to download a ZIP archive with the project source files. You can also use the download link in the above embed to access the source files.

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About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 2000+ technical articles on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA). He previously served as a voting member on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee working on technical standards for quantum electronics, and he currently serves on the IEEE P3186 Working Group focused on Port Interface Representing Photonic Signals Using SPICE-class Circuit Simulators.

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