Very, Very Low Power Consumption

We’re pretty far away from a world full of wall-warts at this point, and the default power supply for your consumer electronics is either a microUSB cable or lithium batteries. USB ports are ubiquitous enough, and lithium cells hold enough power that these devices can work for a very long time.

USB devices are common, and batteries are good enough for most devices, not all of them. There is still a niche where& extremely long battery lifetimes are needed and tapping into mains power is impractical. Think smoke detectors and security systems here. How do power supplies work for these devices? In one of the most recent TI application notes, TI showed off their extremely low power microcontrollers with a motion detector that runs for ten years with a standard coin cell battery. This is one of those small engineering marvels that comes by every few years, astonishing us for a few minutes, and then becomes par for the course a few years down the road.

The first thing anyone should think about when designing a battery-powered device that lasts for years is battery self-discharge. You’re not going to run a battery-powered device for ten years with a AA cell; the shelf life for an Energizer AA cell is just 10 years. Add in a few nanoAmps of drain, and you’ll be lucky to make it to 2020. The difference here is a CR2032 lithium-ion coin cell. Look at the datasheet for one of these cells, and they can easily sit on a shelf for 10 years, with 90% of the rated capacity remaining.

With the correct battery in the device, you’ll need a microcontroller that runs at a sufficiently low power for it to be useful in the mid-2020s. The product for this is the CC1310, a very, very low power ARM Cortex-M3 and sub 1GHz transmitter in one package.

Once that’s settled, it’s simply a matter of putting a sensor on the board – in this case a PIR sensor – and a few analog bits triggering an interrupt occasionally. Have the microcontroller in sleep mode most of the time, and that’s how you get a low-power device with a battery that will last a decade.

Power from Paper

Comedian Steven Wright used to say (in his monotone way):

“We lived in a house that ran on static electricity. If we wanted to cook something, we had to take a sweater off real quick. If we wanted to run a blender, we had to rub balloons on our head.”

Turns out, all you need to generate a little electricity is some paper, Teflon tape and a pencil. A team from EPFL, working with researchers at the University of Tokyo, presented just such a device at a MEMS conference. (And check out their video, below the break.)

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The Mystery of the Boiled Batteries

While debugging a strange battery failure in a manufacturing process, [Josh] discovered a new (to us) LiPo battery failure mode.

Different battery chemistries react differently to temperature. We’ve used lithium exclusively in high-altitude ballooning, for instance, because of their decent performance when cold. Lithium batteries generally don’t like high temperatures, on the other hand, but besides the risk of bursting into flames, we had no idea that heat could kill them. When the battery’s voltage is already low, though, it turns out it can.

[Josh]’s process required molding plastic with the battery inside, and this meant heating the batteries up. After the fact, he noticed an unreasonably high failure rate in the batteries, and decided to test them out. He put the batteries, each in a different initial charge, into a plastic bag and tortured them all with ice and fire. (OK, boiling water.)

When the batteries got hot, their voltage sagged a little bit, but they recovered afterwards. And while the voltage sagged a little bit more for the batteries with lower initial charge, that’s nothing compared to the complete failure of the battery that entered the hot water with under 1V on it — see they yellow line in the graphs.

battery_voltages

There’s a million ways to kill a battery, and lithium batteries are known not to like being completely discharged, but it looks like the combination of deep discharge and heat is entirely deadly. Now you know.

Prototype Sodium Ion Batteries in 18650 Cells

French researchers have announced a prototype of an 18650 sodium-ion battery. If you’ve bought a powerful LED flashlight, a rechargeable battery pack, or a–ahem–stronger than usual LASER pointer, you’ve probably run into 18650 batteries. You often find these inside laptop batteries and –famously– the Tesla electric vehicle runs on a few thousand of these cells. The number might seem like a strange choice, but it maps to the cell size (18 mm in diameter and 65 mm long).

The batteries usually use lithium-ion technology. However, lithium isn’t the only possible choice for rechargeable cells. Lithium has a lot of advantages. It has a high working voltage, and it is lightweight. It does, however, have one major disadvantage: it is a relatively rare element. It is possible to make sodium-ion batteries, although there are some design tradeoffs. But sodium is much more abundant than lithium, which makes up about 0.06% of the Earth’s crust compared to sodium’s 2.6%). Better still, sea water is full of sodium chloride (which we call salt) that you can use to create sodium.

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Storing Energy in Liquid Form

Researchers in Singapore have created a new kind of redox flow battery with an energy density around ten times higher than conventional redox flow batteries. Never heard of a redox flow battery? These rechargeable batteries have more in common with fuel cells than conventional batteries. They use two circulating liquids separated by a membrane as an electrolyte. Each liquid has its own tank, and you can recharge it by pumping in fresh electrolyte. The redox in the name is short for reduction-oxidation and refers to the process that stores energy in the two liquids. You can learn more about flow batteries in the video from Harvard below.

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Tiny PIC Clock is Not a Tiny Bomb

It’s been a few weeks since the incident where Ahmed Mohamed, a student, had one of his inventions mistaken for a bomb by his school and the police, despite the device clearly being a clock. We asked for submissions of all of your clock builds to show our support for Ahmed, and the latest one is the tiniest yet but still has all of the features of a full-sized clock (none of which is explosions).

[Markus]’s tiny clock uses a PIC24 which is a small yet powerful chip. The timekeeping is done on an RTCC peripheral, and the clock’s seven segment displays are temporarily lit when the user presses a button. Since the LEDs aren’t on all the time, and the PIC only consumes a few microamps on standby, the clock can go for years on a single charge of the small lithium-ion battery in the back. There’s also a phototransistor which dims the display in the dark, and a white LED which could be used as a small flashlight in a pinch. If these features and the build technique look familiar it’s because of [Markus’] tiny MSP430 clock which he was showing around last year.

Both of his tiny clocks are quite impressive for their size, features, and power consumption. Some of the other clocks we’ve featured recently include robot clocks, clocks for social good, and clocks that are not just clocks (but still won’t explode). We’re suckers for a good clock project here, so keep sending them in!

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Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: Artificial Muscles and Supercapacitors

For [Lloyd T Cannon III]’s entry to the Hackaday Prize, he’s doing nothing less than changing the way everything moves. For the last 100 years, internal combustion engines have powered planes, trains, and automobiles, and only recently have people started looking at batteries and electric motors. With his supercapacitors and artificial muscles, [Lloyd] is a few decades ahead of everyone else.

There are two parts to [Lloyd]’s project, the first being the energy storage device. He’s building a Lithium Sulfur Silicon hybrid battery. Li-S-Si batteries have the promise to deliver up to 2000 Watt hours per kilogram of battery. For comparison, even advanced Lithium batteries top out around 2-300 Wh/kg. That’s nearly an order of magnitude difference, and while it’s a far way off from fossil fuels, it would vastly increase the range of electric vehicles and make many more technologies possible.

The other part of [Lloyd]’s project is artificial muscles. Engines aren’t terribly efficient, and electric motors are only good if you want to spin things. For robotics, muscles are needed, and [Lloyd] is building them out of fishing line. These muscles contract because of the resistive heating of a carbon fiber filament embedded in the muscle. It’s been done before, but this is the first project we’ve seen that replicates the technique in a garage lab.

Both parts of [Lloyd]’s project are worthy of a Hackaday Prize entry alone, but putting them together as one project more than meets the goal: to build something that matters.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by: