Working with Mains Voltage: The Electrifying Conclusion!

This is the second in a two-part series looking at safety when experimenting with mains-voltage electronic equipment, including the voltages you might find derived from a mains supply but not extending to multi-kilovolt EHT except in passing. In the first part we looked at the safety aspects of your bench, protecting yourself from the mains supply, ensuring your tools and instruments are adequate for the voltages in hand, and finally with your mental approach to a piece of high-voltage equipment.

The mental part is the hard part, because that involves knowing a lot about the inner life of the mains-voltage design. So in this second article on mains voltages, we’ll look into where the higher voltages live inside consumer electronics.

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A Dis-Integrated 6502

The 6502 is the classic CPU. This chip is found in the original Apple, Apple II, PET, Commodore 64, BBC Micro, Atari 2600, and 800, the original Nintendo Entertainment System, Tamagotchis, and Bender Bending Rodriguez. This was the chip that started the microcomputer revolution, and holds a special place in the heart of every nerd and technophile. The 6502 is also possibly the most studied processor, with die shots of polysilicon and metal found in VLSI textbooks and numerous simulators available online.

The only thing we haven’t seen, until now, is a version of the 6502 built out of discrete transistors. That’s what [Eric Schlaepfer] has been working on over the past year. It’s huge – 12 inches by 15 inches – has over four thousand individual components, and so far, this thing works. It’s not completely tested, but the preliminary results look good.

The MOnSter 6502 began as a thought experiment between [Eric] and [Windell Oskay], the guy behind Evil Mad Scientist and creator of the discrete 555 and dis-integrated 741 kits. After realizing that a few thousand transistors could fit on a single panel, [Eric] grabbed the netlist of the 6502 from With the help of several scripts, and placing 4,304 components into a board design, the 6502 was made dis-integrated. If you’re building a CPU made out of discrete components, it only makes sense to add a bunch of LEDs, so [Eric] threw a few of these on the data and address lines.

This is the NMOS version of the 6502, not the later, improved CMOS version. As such, this version of the 6502 doesn’t have all the instructions some programs would expect. The NMOS version is slower, more prone to noise, and is not a static CPU.

So far, the CPU is not completely tested and [eric] doesn’t expect it to run faster than a few hundred kilohertz, anyway. That means this gigantic CPU can’t be dropped into an Apple II or commodore; these computers need a CPU to run at a specific speed. It will, however, work in a custom development board.

Will the gigantic 6502 ever be for sale? That’s undetermined, but given the interest this project will receive it’s a foregone conclusion.

Correction: [Eric] designed the 555 and 741 kits

Making A Fixed Voltage Power Supply Adjustable

Switch-mode power supplies are ubiquitous. Standard off-the-shelf modules in a consistent range of form factors available from multiple manufacturers. Globalized manufacturing and trade has turned them from expensive devices into commodity parts, and they long ago replaced iron-cored transformers as the go-to choice when a high-current low-voltage mains supply is required.

[Lindsay Wilson] faced a power supply problem for a motor he was working with, it required 7.4V and no off-the-shelf power supplies were to be found with that voltage. His solution was to take a 12V supply and modify it to deliver a variable voltage so he could dial in his requirement. A Chinese-made 12v 33A switch-mode supply was purchased, and he set to work.

In the event he was able to design a replacement feedback divider incorporating a rotary potentiometer, and achieve a voltage range of 5 to 15V. A small LED voltmeter mounted next to it in the PSU case gave him a very neat result.

Modifying a switch-mode supply to deliver a different voltage is a well-worn path we’ve covered at least once before. What makes Lindsay’s article worth a read is his reverse-engineering and examination in detail of the PSU circuit. If you’d like to learn more about all the different facets of design that go into a switch-mode PSU, it’s a detailed yet readable primer. We’d suggest reading our recent series on mains and high voltage safety before cracking open a switch-mode PSU yourself, but even if you’re never going to do it there’s something to be gained from knowing in detail how they work.

We’ve featured [Lindsay]’s work here at Hackaday a few times over the years. Check out his ultrasonic transducer power supply, which might be of use were you were building the ultrasonic soldering iron we featured not long ago, his laser stripping of ribbon cables, and his tale of decapping a USB isolator chip.

Reading an IR Thermometer the Hard Way

[Derryn Harvie] from the MakeHackVoid maker space hacked a $10 IR Thermometer and made it talk USB. Sounds easy? Read on.

He opened it up in the hope of finding, and tapping into, a serial bus. But he couldn’t find one, and the main controller was a COB blob – hidden under unmarked black epoxy. Normally this is a dead-end.  (We’ve seen some interesting approaches to decapping epoxy blobs, and even ICs with lasers.)

But [Derryn] went his own way – intercepting the data going from the micro-controller to the LCD display, and reverse engineering it using another microcontroller. He scraped off the solder mask over the tracks leading to the LCD display, and used an oscilloscope to identify the common drive lines. He then used a function generator to excite each of the LCD common lines and the segments lines to build a complete matrix identifying all the combinations that drove the segments. With all the information decoded, wires were soldered so he could hook up an Arduino, and the cut tracks repaired.

Since the LCD was a multiplexed display, the bias voltages were at four levels. Luckily, he could extract most of the LCD information by reading just eight of the segment drive lines, using up all of the analog inputs on the Arduino. Perhaps a different microcontroller with more ADC inputs would have allowed him to display more LCD functions. Well, he can always upgrade his upgrade later. If you have a similar hack to implement, then [Derryn]’s code could be useful to get started.

Thanks, [csirac2] for sending us this tip from MakeHackVoid.

Looking Mains Voltage In The Eye And Surviving

It is often a surprise to see how other people react to mains electricity when they encounter it in a piece of equipment. As engineers who have dealt with it both personally and professionally for many years it is easy to forget that not everyone has had that experience. On one hand we wince at those who dive in with no fear of the consequences, on the other we are constantly surprised at the number of people who treat any item with more than a few volts in it as though it was contaminated with radioactive anthrax and are scared to even think about opening it up.

We recently had a chat among the Hackaday writers about how we could approach this subject. The easy way out is to be all Elf-and-Safety and join the radioactive anthrax crowd. But the conclusion we came to was that this site is a resource for hackers and makers. Some of you are going to lift the lid on boxes containing significant voltages no matter what, so we thought we’d help you do it safely rather than just listen for the distant screams.

So here follows the first in a series on how to approach electronic devices containing high voltages, and live to tell the tale. By “high voltages” we mean anything up to mains voltages, and those directly derived from them such as the few hundred volts rectified DC you’ll find in a switch-mode PSU. For multi-kilovolt EHT you’ll have to wait for another article, because that is an entire subject in itself. We’ll mention these higher voltages in passing, but their detail is best left for a Hackaday colleague with more pertinent experience.

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Overthinking Solenoid Control

No circuit is so trivial that it’s not worth thinking hard about. [Charles Wilkinson] wanted to drive a solenoid air valve that will stay open for long periods of time. This means reducing the holding current to prevent wasting so much power. He stumbled on this article that covers one approach in a ridiculous amount of depth.

[Charles] made two videos about it, one where he debugs the circuit and learns things live on camera, and another where he sums it all up. We’ll be walking you through the long one, but feel free to skip around.

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How to Design, Manufacture, and Document a Hardware Product

It’s pretty awesome to have a hardware design hero jump at the chance to work on a Hackaday conference badge. I am of course talking about Voja Antonic.

I’ve gotten to know him over the last two years when we were introduced and he agreed to work on some original articles. He’s long been a hacker and shared his story of technology despite politics and society changing around him. His Galaksija computer was the first personal computer available in Yugoslavia with over 8,000 kits sold. Since those days he never stopped refining his design and fabrication skills. For instance, his method of making cases from FR4 is beyond compare, and reading some of his wisdom from hardware design in the casino industry is the kind of fascinating stuff that rarely makes it out for others to enjoy.

But I digress — the point is Voja’s been around the block, he knows what he’s doing, and he does it at an amazingly high level. He did an incredible job with the Hackaday | Belgrade conference badge. It features a 16×8 LED display, IR comms hardware, 5 user buttons, USB programming, an option for an accelerometer module, and has spectacular life running on two AAA batteries. It was a hit at the conference, and so was his talk discussing the design and fabrication. Check it out below and then join me below the fold.

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