Killer USB Drive is Designed to Fry Laptops

[Dark Purple] recently heard a story about how someone stole a flash drive from a passenger on the subway. The thief plugged the flash drive into his computer and discovered that instead of containing any valuable data, it completely fried his computer. The fake flash drive apparently contained circuitry designed to break whatever computer it was plugged into. Since the concept sounded pretty amazing, [Dark Purple] set out to make his own computer-frying USB drive.

While any electrical port on a computer is a great entry point for potentially hazardous signals, USB is pretty well protected. If you short power and ground together, the port simply shuts off. Pass through a few kV of static electricity and TVS diodes safely shunt the power. Feed in an RF signal and the inline filtering beads dissipate most of the energy.

To get around or break through these protections, [Dark Purple]’s design uses an inverting DC-DC converter. The converter takes power from the USB port to charge a capacitor bank up to -110VDC. After the caps are charged, the converter shuts down and a transistor shunts the capacitor voltage to the data pins of the port. Once the caps are discharged, the supply fires back up and the cycle repeats until the computer is fried (typically as long as bus voltage is present). The combination of high voltage and high current is enough to defeat the small TVS diodes on the bus lines and successfully fry some sensitive components—and often the CPU. USB is typically integrated with the CPU in most modern laptops, which makes this attack very effective.

Thanks for the tip, [Pinner].

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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Building a power supply around a DC-DC converter

The EEVblog is on a roll with interesting topics lately. In the latest episode [Dave] takes us through the nitty-gritty of switch mode power supply design. Using DC-DC converter IC’s in not especially hard. The datasheets tend to have fairly good usage schematics but there’s always a bit of heartache that goes into figuring out which external components will make for an optimal design. Get your calculator out and, in the video after the break, he’ll walk you through choosing component values based on the formulas for the MC34063 converter chip.

[Dave] makes the point that this is an extremely common chip, available from several manufacturers, and often found in consumer electronics. In fact, the switchmode supply hack from last month was using a regulator based around the MC34063. So you can buy it or scavenge for it. One thing to note though, we checked Mouser and Digikey and they’re pretty short on these chips right now. Plan your projects accordingly.

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Adjustable breadboard supply


adafruit industries’ latest product is an adjustable breadboard power supply kit. We’ve seen breadboard supplies before, but like most of adafruit’s kits, this is the best design you’re going to encounter. It uses an MIC2941 voltage regulator instead of the more commonplace LM317. It has a very low dropout which means your output voltage can be much closer to the input voltage. Their example is using 3AAA or a Li-Ion battery for an output of 3.3V. Input can be through a barrel jack or terminal blocks. There is a selection switch for 3.3, 5, and adjustable voltage. Using the adjustment pot you can select an output voltage anywhere from 1.3V to within .5V of the 20V maximum input. The adjusted output voltage will remain the same even if you increase the input voltage. Like all of their kits, you can find schematics, assembly and usage instructions, on their project site.