A Primer on Buck (and Boost) Converters

We all know that the reason the electrical system uses alternating current is because it’s easy to step the voltage up and down using a transformer, a feature which just isn’t possible with a DC system… or is it? Perhaps you’ve heard of mysterious DC-DC transformers before but never really wanted to look at the wizardry that makes them possible. Now, SparkFun Director of Engineering [Pete Dokter] has a tutorial which explains how these mysterious devices work.

Known as buck converters if they step the input voltage down and boost converters if they step the voltage up, [Pete] explains how these circuits exploit the properties of an inductor to resist changes in current flow. He goes into exquisite detail to explain how components like transistors or MOSFETs are used to switch the current flow to the inductor very rapidly, and just exactly what happens to the magnetic field which makes these devices possible.

The video gives a good amount of background knowledge if you’ve always wanted to understand these devices a little bit better. There are also a few projects floating around that exploit these devices, such as one that uses an AVR microcontroller to perform the switching for a small circuit, or another that uses the interesting properties of these circuits to follow the I-V curve of a solar panel to help charge a bank of batteries. The possibilities are endless!

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Replace your project power supplies with recycled Li-Ion cells and a switching regulator

buck-regulator

[Dr. Iguana’s] experience moving from projects powered by disposable Alkaline cells and linear regulators to recycled Lithium Ion cells using the buck regulators seen above might serve as an inspiration to make the transition in your own projects.

The recycled cells he’s talking about are pulled out of larger battery packs. As we’ve seen in the past, dead battery packs for rechargeable tools, laptops, etc., are often plagued by a few bad apples. A small number of dead cells can bork the entire battery even though many perfectly usable cells remain. Once he decided to make the switch it was time to consider power regulation. He first looked at whether to use the cells in parallel or series. Parallel are easier to charge, but boosting the voltage to the desired level ends up costing more. He decided to go with cells in series, which can be regulated with the a less expensive buck converter. In this case he made a board for the RT8289 chip. The drawback of this method requires that you monitor each cell individually during charging to ensure you don’t have the same problem that killed the battery from which you pulled these good cells.

Help me reverse engineer an LED light bulb

hack LED bulb

I went to the last monthly meeting of Sector 67, a hackerspace in Madison, WI. One of the things shown off was a color changing LED light bulb that Menards was clearing out for $1.99. Inside there’s two RGB LEDs controlled by an ATtiny13 and powered by an AC/DC buck converter. An ATtiny13 will run you around $1.25 by itself so this price is quite amazing. I grabbed a couple of these bulbs and set to work on them. Join me after the break to see what I’ve got so far.

Update: read a follow-up to this post.

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SickSack: ATMega servo snake robot


[Lars] sent in this sweet snake robot that he and [Aske] built for the DTU Robocup. I’ve seen snake bots before, but I like the concept and the clean electronic design. They used a single AtMega32 controller to generate PWM signals for each of the eight servos, and used a very interesting DC-DC buck converter that’s capable of delivering 16 amps.

For the curious, the bot won the best design and effects award at the competition.