How Smart is the Grid?

Marketing and advertising groups often have a tendency to capitalize on technological trends faster than engineers and users can settle into the technology itself. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it is difficult to hold back the motivation to get a product to market and profit. Right now the most glaring example is the practice of carelessly putting WiFi in appliances and toys and putting them on the Internet of Things, but there is a similar type of fiasco playing out in the electric power industry as well. Known as the “smart grid”, an effort is underway to modernize the electric power grid in much the same way that the Internet of Things seeks to modernize household appliances, but to much greater and immediate benefit.

A Cutler-Hammer industrial breaker ominously predicts the coming confusion in the smart grid arena.
Photo by Bryan Cockfield

To that end, if there’s anything in need of modernization it’s the electric grid. Often still extensively using technology that was pioneered in the 1800s like synchronous generators and transformers (not to mention metering and billing techniques that were perfected before the invention of the transistor), there is a lot of opportunity to add oversight and connectivity to almost every part of the grid from the power plant to the customer. Additionally, most modern grids are aging rapidly at the same time that we are asking them to carry more and more electricity. Modernization can also help the aging infrastructure become more efficient at delivering energy.

While the term “smart grid” is as nebulous and as ill-defined as “Internet of Things” (even the US Government’s definition is muddied and vague), the smart grid actually has a unifying purpose behind it and, so far, has been an extremely useful way to bring needed improvements to the power grid despite the lack of a cohesive definition. While there’s no single thing that suddenly transforms a grid into a smart grid, there are a lot of things going on at once that each improve the grid’s performance and status reporting ability.

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PSA: Don’t Let Kids Eat Lithium Batteries

We get a lot of press releases at Hackaday, but this one was horrific enough that we thought it was worth sharing. Apparently, some kids are accidentally eating lithium coin cell batteries. When this happens with bigger cells, usually greater than 20 millimeters (CR2032, CR2025, and CR2016) really bad things happen. Like burning esophaguses, and even death.

The National Capital Poison Center has done some research on this, and found that 14% of batteries swallowed over the past two years came from flameless candles like the ones above. We know some of our readers also deal with batteries in open trays, which are apparently pretty dangerous for children.

The National Capital Poison Center’s website has an entire page dedicated to battery safety, which is probably worth a read if you deal with batteries and small children on a regular basis. Should an incident occur, there’s even a hotline to call for assistance.

So, please, don’t swallow batteries, or let children put them in their mouths. After the break, a Canadian PSA song about not putting things in your mouth.

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Counting Laps and Testing Products with OpenCV

It’s been about a year and a half since the Batteroo, formally known as Batteriser, was announced as a crowdfunding project. The premise is a small sleeve that goes around AA and AAA batteries, boosting the voltage to extract more life out of them. [Dave Jones] at EEVblog was one of many people to question the product, which claimed to boost battery life by 800%.

Batteroo did manage to do something many crowdfunding projects can’t: deliver a product. Now that the sleeves are arriving to backers, people are starting to test them in the wild. In fact, there’s an entire thread of tests happening over on EEVblog.

One test being run is a battery powered train, running around a track until the battery dies completely. [Frank Buss] wanted to run this test, but didn’t want to manually count the laps the train made. He whipped up a script in Python and OpenCV to automate the counting.

The script measures laps by setting two zones on the track. When the train enters the first zone, the counter is armed. When it passes through the second zone, the lap is recorded. Each lap time is kept, ensuring good data for comparing the Batteroo against a normal battery.

The script gives a good example for people wanting to play with computer vision. The source is available on Github. As for the Batteroo, we’ll await further test results before passing judgement, but we’re not holding our breath. After all, the train ran half as long when using a Batteroo.

Hackathon Alert: Clean Tech At TVCoG

At Hackaday, we get notified of a lot of the cool events going on in hackerspaces all around the world. We’d like to keep you informed too, just in case there’s something going on in your neighborhood.

So we’re going to start running a weekly column on Saturdays that groups together all of the upcoming week’s exceptional events and noteworthy gatherings. If your hackerspace has something going on, tell us about your event on or around the preceding Wednesday. We’ll see your space in on Hackaday!
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Converting an Electric Scooter to Lithium Batteries and Disabling the Safeties

There’s a bunch of different electric scooters available nowadays, including those hoverboards that keep catching fire. [TK] had an older Razor E300 that uses lead acid batteries. After getting tired of the low speeds and 12 hour charge times, [TK] decided it was time to swap for lithium batteries.

The new batteries were sourced from a Ryobi drill. Each provides 18 V, giving 36 V in series. The original batteries only ran at 24 V, which caused some issues with the motor controller. It refused to start up with the higher voltage. The solution: disable the safety shutdown relay on the motor controller by bridging it with a wire.

With the voltage issue sorted out, it was time for the current limit to be modified. This motor controller uses a TI TL494 to generate the PWM waveforms that drive a MOSFET to provide variable power to the motor. Cutting the trace to the TL494’s current sense pin removed the current limit all together.

We’re not saying it’s advisable to disable all current and voltage limits on your scooter, but it seems to be working out for [TK]. The $200 scooter now does 28 km/h, up from 22 km/h and charges much faster. With gearing mods, he’s hoping to eke out some more performance.

After the break, the full conversion video.

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Nanotech Makes Safer Lithium Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries typically contain two electrodes and an electrolyte. Shorting or overcharging the battery makes it generate heat. If the temperature reaches about 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius), the electrolyte can catch fire and explode.

spikesThere have been several attempts to make safer lithium-ion cells, but often these safety measures render them unusable after overheating. Stanford University researchers have a new method to protect from overheating cells that uses–what else–nanotechnology graphene. The trick is a thin film of polyethylene that contains tiny nickel spikes coated with graphene (see electron micrograph to the right).

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Adding Range (and Bling) to an Electric Skateboard

Long-time Hackaday reader [Andrew Rossignol] bought a Boosted-brand electric skateboard while he was living in NYC. While the batteries more than sufficed for his commute in the Big Apple, he ran out of juice when he moved to the Left Coast, leaving him three miles short of a ten mile trip.

Faced with the unthinkable fate of pushing his skateboard like a Neanderthal, [Andrew] added more batteries. There’s great detail about how he chose the battery chemistry and the particulars of charging and something about load balancing, so it’s definitely worth a read if you’re building an electric vehicle.

IMG_3927But once [Andrew] had some surplus battery capacity on board (tee hee!) he thought of ways to waste it. The natural solution: tons of RGB LED underlighting.

Still not content with an off-the-shelf solution (which wouldn’t let him recharge the batteries without unplugging the lights), he ended up rolling his own with an Arduino and some WS2812s. The nicest touch? Keeping it all out of the elements in a sweet aluminum box, hiding the cable salad within.

There’s a lot to be said for the good industrial design of something like the Boosted skateboard, but if you’d rather DIY, we’ve been covering electric skateboard for a while now. It’s nice to see how battery and motor technology have changed since then, too. Compare and contrast this recent build with that old-school version and with [Andrew’s] build that was covered in this post. We live in good times.