Engage Tinfoil Hat: Samsung Note 7 Battery Theory

For the most part I believe things are as they seem. But every once in a while I begin to look at notable technology happenings from a different angle. What if things are not like they seem? This is conspiracy theory territory, and I want to be very clear about this: what follows is completely fictitious and not based on fact. At least, I haven’t tried to base it on facts surrounding the current events. But perhaps you can. What if there’s more to the battery fires in Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 phones?

I have a plausible theory, won’t you don your tinfoil hat and follow me down this rabbit hole?

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Li-Ion Tech Staring Into the Abyss with Note 7 Failure

Unless you’ve been living under a high voltage transformer, you’ve heard about the potential for Samsung’s latest phone, the Note7, to turn into a little pocket grenade without warning. With over 2.5 million devices in existence, it’s creating quite a headache for the company and its consumers.

They quickly tied the problem to faulty Li-ion batteries and started replacing them, while issuing a firmware update to stop charging at 60 percent capacity. But after 5 of the replacement phones caught fire, Samsung killed the Note7 completely. There is now a Total Recall on all Note7 phones and they are no longer for sale.  If you have one, you are to turn it off immediately. And don’t even think about strapping it into a VR headset — Oculus no longer supports it. If needed, Samsung will even send you a fireproof box and safety gloves to return it.

Every airline has been broadcasting warnings not to power on or charge a Note 7 on a plane. Image Source: CNET

It should be noted that the problem only affects 0.01% of the phones out there, so they’re not exactly going to set the world on fire. However, it has generated yet another discussion about the safety of Li-ion battery technology.

It was just a few months ago we all heard about those hoverboards that would catch fire. Those questionably-engineered (and poorly-named) toys used Li-ion batteries as well, and they were the source of the fire problem. In the wake of this you would think all companies manufacturing products with Li-ion batteries in them would be extra careful. And Samsung is no upstart in the electronics industry — this should be a solved problem for them.

Why has this happened? What is the deal with Li-ion batteries? Join me after the break to answer these questions.

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Homebrew Powerwall Sitting at 20kWh

Every now and then a hacker gets started on a project and forgets to stop. That’s the impression we get from [HBPowerwall]’s channel anyway. He’s working on adding a huge number of 18650 Lithium cells to his home’s power grid and posting about his adventures along the way. This week he gave us a look at the balancing process he uses to get all of these cells to work well together. Last month he gave a great overview of the installed system.

His channel starts off innocently enough. It’s all riding small motor bikes around and having a regular good time.  Then he experiments a bit with the light stuff, like a few solar panels on the roof.  However, it seems like one day he was watching a news brief about the Powerwall (Tesla’s whole-home battery storage system) and was like, “hey, I can do that.”

After some initial work with the new substance it wasn’t long before he was begging, borrowing, and haggling for every used 18650 lithium battery cell the local universe in Brisbane, Australia could sell him. There are a ton of videos documenting his madness, but he’s all the way up to a partly off-grid house with a 20kWh battery bank, for which he has expansion plans.

There’s a lot of marketing flim flam and general technical pitfalls in the process of generating your own non-grid electricity. But for hackers in sunny areas who want to dump those rays into local storage this is an interesting blueprint to start with.

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Scratch-Built EV From Hoverboards

Electric vehicles are everywhere now. Even though battery technology hasn’t had the breakthrough that we need to get everyone out driving an electric car, the price for batteries has dropped enough that almost anything else is possible. The hoverboard was proof of this: an inexpensive electric vehicle of sorts that anyone who was anyone in 2015 had. Taking his cue from there, [Harris] used off-the-shelf parts normally used for hoverboards to build his own battery-powered trike.

The trike is homemade from the ground up, too. The H-frame was bolted together using steel and lots and lots of bolts. Propulsion comes from a set of hub motors that are integrated into the wheels like a hoverboard or electric bicycle would have. Commonly available plug-and-play lithium batteries make up the power unit and are notably small. In fact, the entire build looks like little more than a frame and a seat, thanks to the inconspicuous batteries and hub motors.

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Russian Hacker Multiplies Value of Boost Converter

We have a love/hate relationship with LiIon batteries. They pack all this power in such a small and light package. But for running 3.3 V devices, they’re cumbersome. They need to be stepped down a little bit when they’re fully charged at 4.2 V, but then they need to be stepped up at the end of their charge around 3.0 V.

A simple boost or buck converter can’t do both jobs, although you’d be tempted because they can be purchased for peanuts online. So [Kirich] hacked cheap boost converters into the more capable SEPIC topology, which sell for nearly 10x as much. (Google translated version here.) The bottom line? With a little desoldering, a cut trace here and an extra inductor there, and [Kirich] had a very capable circuit that would maintain a constant 3.3 V output when the input swung between 1 V and 5 V.

95aa17If SEPIC power converters are foreign to you, have a read through Maxim’s white paper on the subject. Basically, it’s a boost converter with a capacitor in the middle that lets the output voltage drop below the input voltage. An extra inductor keeps the output side of this capacitor at ground potential (on average).

If you want more detail, [Kirich] doesn’t disappoint. He tested his modifications in multiple configurations on two different models of boost converter. As you’d expect with power circuitry, layout and trace length matters, and [Kirich] took good notes. This is a great read for the frugal hacker, or anyone who’s interested in boost/buck converters.

Speaking of boost/buck circuits, we’ve got some more links for you. This video from Sparkfun’s [Pete Dokter] is worth fifteen minutes, and if you want to get your hands really dirty in the construction of such circuits, this ATtiny-based boost converter circuit is fun to play with.

Thanks [kirillre4] for the great tip!

Tour de Force Battery Hacking

Lithium-Ion batteries are finicky little beasts. They can’t be overcharged, overdischarged, overheated, or even looked at funny without bursting into flames. Inside any laptop battery pack, a battery charge controller keeps watch over all the little cells, and prevents them from getting damaged.

Of course, any “smart” device will sometimes make the wrong choices, and then it’s up to us to dig inside its brains and fix it. When [Viktor] got a perfectly good battery pack with a controller that refused to charge the batteries, he started off on what would become an epic journey into battery controllers, and the result is not just a fixed battery, but a controller-reprogramming tool, software, and three reversed controller chips so far.

devbBattery controller chips speak SMBus, and [Viktor] started out by building a USB-SMBus tool. It’s a clever use of a cheap eBay development board for a Cypress CY7C68013A USB microcontroller. Flashed with [Viktor]’s firmware and running his software on the host computer, a SMBus scan is child’s play.

The rest of the story is good old-fashioned hacking: looking for datasheets, reading industry powerpoints, taking wild guesses, googling for passwords, and toggling the no-connect pins while booting the controllers up. We’re not going to argue with results: the bq8030, R2J240, and M37512 controllers have all given up their secrets, and tools to program them have been integrated into [Viktor]’s SMBusb tool.

In short, this is one of the nicest hard-core hacks we’ve seen in a while. Kudos [Viktor]! And thanks for the SMBus tool.

How To Make Your Weller Wireless

On occasion I have encountered portable soldering irons and my impressions of them have ranged from nearly usable to total rubbish. While using a popular butane powered model and pondering if it was really any better than a copper wire and a candle a thought occurred to me. A regular old Weller station runs on 24 volts AC and performs all of its temperature regulation in a magnetically activated thermostatic fashion and all of that goodness occurs within the hand piece itself. It stood to reason that it could perform just as well with a DC source.

In this instance we are ignoring the negative effects of switching DC current over AC current on mechanical contacts. After all we are “In the Trenches” wherever we might have need for such a device. Using a couple of gel cell 12 volt 7 amp hour batteries freshly removed from a UPS I strung them up, and there you have it, a totally battery operated  iron with performance equal to that of the one at my bench.

Connecting SMPS to the Weller Iron
Connecting Power to the Weller Iron

Right at 24 volts the iron Thermocycles at the same rate as it would be while using the bench top supply for it. Just sitting under no load it cycles about every ten seconds and there was no perceptible difference in heat capacity or performance. A fully charged pair of batteries will last all day. The on state current draw from a full charge (13.5 volts on each of the batteries) yielded about a 2 amp draw. As the voltage began to decrease the current off cycle would get shorter as one would expect, but no drop in heat transfer was noticed until the batteries were well depleted and that took most of a work day.

For this instance I used the hand piece from the venerable Weller WTCPT station. For ongoing use I would not recommend this due to the use of a mechanical contact within the unit and switching of DC can reduced the life of most mechanical switches. Currently I am awaiting the arrival of some cheap eBay Hakko handpieces; I am sure they are knockoffs, but fine to experiment with a simple PWM with a feedback loop controller as the basic Hakko design also utilizes a 24 volt source. An automatic shut off timer would also be handy to avoid premature battery abuse due to a forgetful operator.