Not Quite 101 Uses For An ATX Power Supply

The PC power supply has been a standard of the junk box for the last couple of decades, and will probably continue to be for the foreseeable future. A product that is often built to a very high standard and which will give years of faithful service, yet which has a life of only a few years as the PC of which it is a part becomes obsolete. Over the decades it has evolved from the original PC and AT into ATX, supplying an ever-expanding range of voltage rails at increasing power levels. There have been multiple different revisions of the ATX power supply standard over the years, but they all share the same basic form factor.

So a pile of ATX supplies will probably feature in the lives of quite a few readers. Most of them will probably be old and obsolete versions of little use with today’s motherboards, so there they sit. Not small enough to ignore, yet Too Good To Throw Away. We’re going to take a look at them, try to work out what useful parts they contain, and see a few projects using them. Maybe this will provide some inspiration if you’re one of those readers with a pile of them seeking a purpose.

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Parts You Should know: A Universe Of Useful Injection Molded Standoffs

Your clever branding won't work on me! *types caption in on iPhone*
Your clever branding won’t work on me!
*types caption in on iPhone, sips Starbucks*

I remember the first time I built a computer. My sister and I had our last fight about who would get to use the family computer, it was time I had one of my own. I knew a little bit, and I knew I wasn’t going to be one of those plebs that overpaid for a Gateway in its cow box. So I outsourced. One of the computer literate parents in my Scout Troop very kindly agreed to put together a list of components for me. I spent my Christmas money, birthday money, and a small mountain of money I had saved up. I remember getting the parts in the mail. I was so excited that a week earlier I had even bought one of those super lame computer tool kits to put it together.

I still remember how enormously frustrating the stand-offs for the mother board were to install. I think computers were still figuring out that they didn’t need ALL of the features of a mainframe. Anyway there was a 3mm screw on each side of a cm tall brass standoff. It also wanted me to put these little isolating paper washers on the assembly for some reason. Even with my then presidentially sized hands it took a long time. My Mom later told me that it was around this time she was certain the whole endeavour was going to end in tears.

Six hours of careful work later I had the computer together and running when I realized I had forgotten to buy an OS for it. She was nearly right.

Regardless. My early experience with computer assembly left me with a love for standardized screws, a hate for excessive fasteners, and a deep loathing for improperly routed wires. I was a weird kid. Anyway, when it came time for me to start designing my own enclosures for circuit boards I had all the unique psychological damage and underpinnings I would need to waste a lot of time googling on the internet for an alternate, screwless, method of standing a board off from a surface.

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A Vintage Single Transistor LED Blinker

[Eric Wasatonic] had a box of SWB2433 transistors that he had very little information about. In order to discover their properties, he fired up his curve tracer to compare these transistors with more common ones. He noticed the SWB2433 exhibited negative resistance while the similar curves of a 2n3904 didn’t. Then he reverse-biased the two transistors: the negative resistance region on the 2n3904 was less than that of the SWB2433, but it was there, and a 2n2222 had a bigger region. Using this knowledge, he developed a relaxation oscillator circuit which uses a negatively biased transistor.

Using one transistor, one resistor and one capacitor, he describes the circuit and how the components affect the frequency of the sawtooth wave the oscillator creates. [Eric] uses the oscillator to build a simple LED blinker and shows what happens when he changes the transistor and adjusts the voltage or resistance. He also shows the circuit as a tone generator and adjusts the tone by replacing the resistor with a potentiometer. And then, for fun, he modifies the circuit to show the oscillator as an AM transmitter. Check out his video after the break.

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Espressif Releases ESP8266-Killer!

It’s no secret that we love the ESP8266 chip, and the community of hackers that have contributed to making it useful. We often joke about this or that new WiFi-enabler being an ESP8266 killer, but so far none have stepped up. Here we go again!

Espressif has released a chip that’s going to be an ESP8266 killer, and no, it’s not the ESP32. The ESP8285 went into mass production in March, and should start to appear in the usual outlets fairly soon.

What makes it an ESP8266 killer? It’s an ESP8266, but with the flash memory onboard. Nothing more, but also nothing less. What does this mean? Tiny, tiny designs are possible. And, if the street price ends up being right, there’s no reason you wouldn’t opt for built-in flash. (Unless you were planning on doing some ROM hacking.)

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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.