How Does a Buck Converter Work Anyway?

[Great Scott] should win an award for quickest explanation of a buck converter. Clocking in at five and a half minutes, the video clearly shows the operating principles behind the device.

It starts off with the question, what should you do if you want to drop a voltage? Many of us know that we can dim and brighten an LED using the PWM on an Arduino, but a closer inspection with an oscilloscope still shows 5V peaks that would be dangerous to a 3.3V circuit. He then adds an inductor and diode, this keeps the current from dropping too fast, but the PWM just isn’t switching fast enough to keep the coil energized.

A small modification to the Arduino’s code, and the PWM frequency is now in the kHz range. The voltage looks pretty good on the oscilloscope, but a filter cap gets it to look nice and smooth. Lastly, he shows how when the load changes the voltage out looks different. To fix this a voltage divider feeds back the information to the Arduino, letting it change the PWM duty to match the load.

In the last minute of the video he shows how to hook up off-the-shelf switching regulators, whose support components are now completely demystified as the basic principles are understood. Video after the break.

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Safely Creating A Li-Ion Pack From Phone Cells

[Glen], at Maker Space Newcastle Upon Tyne, is refreshingly honest. As he puts it, he’s too cheap to buy a proper battery.

He needed a 1AH battery pack to power his quadcopter controller and FPV headset, and since inadequate discharge warnings had led him to damage lithium polymer cells with these devices, he wanted his pack to use lithium-ion cells. His requirements were that the cells be as cheap, lightweight, and small as possible, so to satisfy them he turned to a stack of mobile phone cells. Nokia BL-4U cells could be had for under a pound ($1.46) including delivery, so they certainly satisfied his requirement for cheapness.

It might seem a simple procedure, to put together a battery pack, and in terms of physical wiring it certainly is. But lithium-ion cells are not simply connected together in the way dry cells are, to avoid a significant fire risk they need to have the voltage of each individual cell monitored with a special balanced charger. Thus each cell junction needs to be brought out to another connector to the charger.

[Glen]’s write-up takes the reader through all the requirements of safe lithium-ion pack construction and charging, and is a useful read for any lithium-ion newbies. If nothing else it serves as a useful reminder that mobile phone cells can be surprisingly cheap.

Lithium cells have captured our attention before here at Hackaday. Our recent Hackaday Dictionary piece provides a comprehensive primer, we’ve featured another multi-cell build, and an interesting app note from Maxim for a battery manager chip.

i2c Relay Expander Uses Nifty Card-Edge Connection

[Andrew Sowa] wanted to use an off-the-shelf relay board from Numato Labs. The board lacks a suitable computer interface, which meant that [Andrew] would have to build one, and its input connectors are screw terminals, which meant a lot of wiring. Undeterred, he created an i2c expansion board using an MCP23017 I/O port expander, and with a novel card-edge designed to mate with the screw terminals, solving both problems at once.
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Make a BLDC Motor From Scraps You Can Find In The Garage

Think you’ve got what it takes to build a homebrew brushless motor? As [JaycubL] shows us, it turns out that a bldc motor may be living in pieces right under your nose, in scraps that so many of us would otherwise toss aside. To get our heads turning, [JaycubL] takes us into the theory of brushless DC motors operate. He then builds a homebrew brushless motor using screws, a plastic container, a few bearings, a metal rod, some magnets, and a dab of epoxy. Finally, he gives it a whirl with an off-the-shelf motor controller.

This isn’t [JaycubL’s] first dive into homebrew brushless motors. For the curious, he’s also assembled a fully-functional brushless outrunner motor with a paint can housing.

Sure, understanding the principles is one thing, but being able to take the leap into the real world and find the functional beginnings of a motor from your scrap bin is an entirely different story! [JaycubL’s], dare we say, finesse of understanding the principles behind motor design makes us wonder: how many other functional higher-level electrical and mechanical components can we bootstrap from bitter scrap? To get you started, we’ll point you in the direction of this CNC router that’s just a few steps away from one trip to the hardware store.

Thanks for the tip, [John]!

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Co-Exist With Your Coax: Choose The Right Connector For The Job

Just a selection from the author's unholy assortment of adaptors.
Just a selection from the author’s unholy assortment of adaptors.

If you do any work with analogue signals at frequencies above the most basic audio, it’s probable that somewhere you’ll have a box of coax adaptors. You’ll need them, because the chances are your bench will feature instruments, devices, and modules with a bewildering variety of connectors. In making all these disparate devices talk to each other you probably have a guilty past: at some time you will have created an unholy monster of a coax interface by tying several adaptors together to achieve your desired combination of input and output connector. Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.

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A Ridiculous Way to Light an LED: Candle-power

If you have ever entertained yourself by reading comprehensive electronic-theory textbooks you’ll have seen references to technologies that sound really interesting but which you will rarely hold in your hand. They may be dead-ends that have been superseded by more recent innovations, or they may be technologies that have found uses but in other fields from those in which they originally showed promise. What if you could take these crazy parts and actually build something?

[Fedetft] has an interesting project that combines two of those intriguing textbook references, he’s created a thermopile that lights an LED through an inverter whose oscillator is a tunnel diode. Dig out the textbook.

If you’ve used a thermocouple thermometer or a semiconductor thermoelectric generator then you’ll have encountered the thermoelectric effect. Perhaps you’ve even operated a Peltier cooling element in this mode. When a circuit is made with two junctions between different types of conductor with a temperature difference between the two junctions, a current will flow in the circuit which is dependent on both the scale of the temperature difference and the properties of the conductors.

A thermopile is a collection of these thermoelectric junction circuits between metal conductors, arranged in series to increase the voltage. [Fedetft]’s thermopile uses chromel and alumel wires taken from a K-type thermocouple. He’s made six sets of junctions, and supported them with small pieces of mica sheet. Using the heat from a candle he found he could generate about 200mV with it, at about 3.7mW.

The RCA tunnel diode inverter circuit
The RCA tunnel diode inverter circuit

Such a tiny source of electricity would be of little use to light an LED directly, so he needed to build an inverter. And that’s where the tunnel diode comes in. Tunnel diodes have a negative-resistance region that can be used to amplify and oscillate at extremely high frequencies in extremely simple circuits, yet they’re not exactly a device you’d encounter very often in 2016. [Fedetft] has a Russian tunnel diode, and he’s used it with a toroidal transformer in an inverter circuit he found in an RCA tunnel diode manual from 1963. It’s a two-component Joule Thief. The RCA manual is a good read in itself for those curious about tunnel diodes.

The resulting circuit produces a 15kHz oscillation with 4.5v peaks, and has just enough power to light an LED.

While it might seem pointless to barely light an LED from a brightly lit candle, the important part of [Fedetft]’s project is to gain some understanding of two of those technological backwaters from the textbooks. And we applaud that.

It’s the mark of a truly esoteric technology that it features rarely on Hackaday, and neither of these two disappoint. We’ve only mentioned tunnel diode in passing when looking at diodes in general, and we’ve tended to use “thermopile” in another sense to refer to thermal imaging cameras.

Standard Resistor Teardowns

What do you do, when you want an ohm? What is an ohm, for that matter? Take a wander over to the textbook definitions, and you’re soon deep in a world of coulombs and parallel infinite planes one meter apart in a vacuum that you probably only half remember from your high school physics class. It’s hard work, this metrology lark.

Of course, you can just order a resistor. A few cents each when you’re buying small quantities or much less when you’re buying a reel of five thousand, and there you have it. An ohm. Only it’s not really an ohm, more like nearly an ohm. Within 1% of an ohm is pretty good, but Vishay or Bourns or whoever don’t have the margins to get philosophical about those infinite planes when you’re only giving them a few cents.

When you REALLY want an ohm, you buy a standard resistor, and you pay a more significant sum. You’re never going to wire one of these up to bias a transistor or drive an LED, instead it’s about as close as it’s possible to get on your bench to the value it says on the box and you can use it for calibration purposes. PPM figures well in excess of the resolution of even superior DMMs sound pretty good to us!

[Zlymex] was curious about standard resistors, so performed a teardown of a few to see what they contain. And after a pithy explanation of the terms involved he’s managed to look inside quite a few of them.

Inside he finds hermetically sealed wire-wound resistors, some oil-filled wire-wound resistors, and the occasional hefty piece of manganin. He also tears down some of the hermetically sealed resistors themselves, finding both wire-wound and foil resistance elements within.

It is a curious obsession that permeates hacker culture, that of standard measurements, and it’s one we’ve covered quite a few times here. Time enthusiasts with atomic clocks like this rather beautiful discrete logic build, or voltage enthusiasts with their temperature compensated references or programmable standards. Surprisingly though, this appears to be the first time we’ve looked at standard resistors.

Thanks [David Gustafik] for the tip.