I2C Hacks: How to Splice Clocks into Chip-Selects

There comes a time when you need to wire up three, four, or more identical i2c devices to a common microcontroller. Maybe you’re thinking about driving a whopping 32 seven-segment displays with four of those MAX7219CNG 8-way digit drivers, or maybe you have a robot full of joints–each of which needs a BNO055 inertial sensor for angle estimation. (See above.) Crikey! In both of those cases, you’re best bet might be a schnazzy I²C device that can do most of the work for you. The problem? With a single I²C bus, there’s no standard way defined in the protocol for connecting two or more devices with the same address. Shoot! It would’ve been handy to wire up three BNO055 IMUs or four MAX7219CNGs and call it a day. Luckily, there’s a workaround.

We’ve seen some clever tricks in the past for solving this problem. [Marv G‘s] method involves toggling between a device’s default and alternate address with an external pin. This method, while clever, assumes that the device (a) has an alternate I²C address and (b) features an external pin for toggling that address.

I’ll introduce two additional methods for getting the conversation started between your micro’ and your suite of identical sensors. The first is “a neat trick,” but somewhat impractical for widespread use. The second is far more  production-worthy–something you could gloat over and show off to your boss! Without further ado, let’s get started with Method 1.

Lastly, if you’d like to follow along, feel free to check out the source code on Github.

The Test Setup:


In both methods, I’m using the same sensor setup to check that each circuit behaves correctly. I happened to have a bunch of extra BMA180s on the bench, so I rolled out an example based on these chips. Back in the day, the BMA180 was a pretty common three-axis digital accelerometer. It has an I²C interface with two optional addresses. For the purpose of this example, I’m fixing them all with the same address.  I’ve mounted three of these guys on mutually perpendicular axes of my acrylic “test cube,” and I’m reading each chip’s Z-axis. In this configuration I can easily pick out the gravity vector from the corresponding sensor as the data goes flying by my serial port window. If I can uniquely address each sensor and read the data, I’ve got a working circuit.

Method 1: Splicing Clocks into Chip-Selects

This method tips its hat towards SPI in that it behaves in an oddly similar fashion. If you’re feeling rusty on SPI, here’s a quick recap.

A Quick SPI Refreshment:

SPI, like I²C, is another protocol that shares both its clock and data lines with multiple slave devices. The difference, though, lies in the addressing scheme to talk to these devices that share the same bus. With SPI, while clock and data lines are shared, devices are addressed with separate chip-select (CS) lines.

Image Source: Wikipedia

The master microcontroller dedicates a unique output pin to each device (~SS1, ~SS2, and ~SS3 in this illustration). When the master micro’ wants to talk to a device, it asserts that device’s chip-select input pin by pulling it to logic LOW, and the conversation begins over the data bus. With the chip select LOW, the corresponding slave listens to the data on the bus. Meanwhile, all other devices ignore the conversation between the master and it’s chosen slave by keeping their bus pins in a high impedance state.

Giving I²C Its Own Chip-Selects:

With I²C, Clock (SCL) and Data (SDA) lines are still shared between all I2C slave devices, but the addressing scheme happens by sending a message heard by all devices on the bus. To single out one device on the shared bus, the master first passes down the address of the slave device it wants to talk to, after which that slave replies with an ACKnowledge, and all other slaves ignore the data that follows until both data transmission is complete and the bus is “released.”


Because we have the problem of multiple devices with shared addresses, in theory, all of these devices would reply when the master passes down their shared address, and there’s no way for the master to single out a single device. In reality, this behavior is undefined on the I²C protocol.


Yikes! Anything goes when we wander away from defined behavior, so we try to avoid these things in practice.

The solution?

According to the I²C spec, It just so happens that an I²C slave device will ignore changes on the data line (SDA) provided that the clock line (SCL) is held high. In this method, I’ll “split” the SCL line into multiple SCL lines such that each shared I²C device gets its own SCL. By selectively rerouting the clock to each I²C device one-at-a-time, I’ve essentially turned the SCL line into a “chip select.”

To chop up that clock line, I’ll need a demultiplexer. A demultiplexer (or decoder) takes a logical input and reroutes it to one of several outputs based on the binary select lines.

demux i2c_demultiplexing_demo

I’ve dropped in the 74AC11138 eight-way demultiplexer for this task. It’s fast, capable of switching at megahertz rates, and its outputs default to logic HIGH. That second note is handy since idle SCL lines also default to logic HIGH.

The setup is shown in a simplified schematic above. In it, I’m using a Teensy 3.0 posing as the I²C bus master. To the right of the Teensy is the collection of identical chips, BMA180 accelerometers in this case. In the middle is the 74AC11138 eight-way demultiplexer.

Cons of this Method:

There’s a minor drawback with this technique, though, in that it doesn’t support I²C’s clock-stretching feature. Taking a step back, this method assumes that the SCL line is inherently unidirectional, controlled by only the I²C bus master. In other words, we’re making the assumption that data on the SCL line is only sent from master to slave and never the other way around. If your I²C slave devices implement clock-stretching, however, this assumption breaks down.

What is Clock Stretching?

Clock stretching is a method defined by the I²C protocol where the chip needs to “buy itself more time” and holds the SCL line low, hence, signalling to the master that it’s not ready for the upcoming data. In this scenario, the slave actively controls the SCL line, and it happens to be the only case where data moves up the SCL line from slave to master. In a setup with our demultiplexer between the master and our set of identical slaves, these slaves won’t be able to send back the clock-stretching signal to the master to indicate that they aren’t ready for data, if they happen to implement clock stretching. That said, clock stretching is a pretty rare feature among I²C-compatible devices, so this method is likely to work among a number of chips out now.

More Next Week

That’s all for Method 1. Thanks for tuning in, and check back next week for a slightly-more-professional method of tackling this same problem.

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