The war of the currents was fairly decisively won by AC. After all, whether you’ve got 110 V or 230 V coming out of your wall sockets, 50 Hz or 60 Hz, the whole world agrees that the frequency of oscillation should be strictly greater than zero. Technically, AC won out because of three intertwined facts. It was more economical to have a few big power plants rather than hundreds of thousands of tiny ones. This meant that power had to be transmitted over relatively long distances, which calls for higher voltages. And at the time, the AC transformer was the only way viable to step up and down voltages.
But that was then. We’re right now on the cusp of a power-generation revolution, at least if you believe the solar energy aficionados. And this means two things: local power that’s originally generated as DC. And that completely undoes two of the three factors in AC’s favor. (And efficient DC-DC converters kill the transformer.) No, we don’t think that there’s going to be a switch overnight, but we wouldn’t be surprised if it became more and more common to have two home electrical systems — one remote high-voltage AC provided by the utilities, and one locally generated low-voltage DC.
Why? Because most devices these days use low-voltage DC, with the notable exception of some big appliances. Batteries store DC. If more and more homes have some local DC generation capability, it stops making sense to convert the local DC to AC just to plug in a wall wart and convert it back to DC again. Hackaday’s [Jenny List] sidestepped a lot of this setup and went straight for the punchline in her article “Where’s my low-voltage DC wall socket?” and proposed a few solutions for the physical interconnects. But we’d like to back it up for a minute. When the low-voltage DC revolution comes, what voltage is it going to be?
The phrase “Tesla vs. Edison” conjures up images of battling titans, mad scientists, from a bygone age. We can easily picture the two of them facing off, backed by glowing corona with lightning bolts emitting from their hands. The reality is a little different though. Their main point of contention was Tesla’s passion for AC vs. Edison’s drive to create DC power systems to power his lights. Their personalities also differed in many ways, the most relevant one here being their vastly different approaches to research. Here, then, is the story of their rivalry.
We’re not even halfway through January, and already the conference season is upon us. This weekend, Hackaday will be attending Shmoocon at the Hilton in Washington, DC. I’ll be there getting the full report on Russian hackers, reverse engineering, and what the beltway looks like with an ice storm during morning rush hour.
What are the evocative sounds and smells of your childhood? The sensations that you didn’t notice at the time but which take you back immediately? For me one of them is the slight smell of phenolic resin from an older piece of consumer electronics that has warmed up; it immediately has me sitting cross-legged on our living room carpet, circa 1975.
That phenolic smell has gone from our modern electronics, not only because modern enclosures are made from ABS and other more modern plastics, but because the electronics they contain no longer get so hot. Our LCD TV for instance nowadays uses only 50 watts, while its 1970s CRT predecessor would have used several hundred. Before the 1970s you would not find many household appliances that used less than 100 watts, but if you take stock of modern electrical appliances, few use more than that. Outside the white goods in your kitchen and any electric heaters or hair dryers you may own, your appliances today are low-powered. Even your lighting is rapidly being taken over by LEDs, which are at their heart low-voltage devices.
There are many small technological advancements that have contributed to this change over the decades. Switch-mode power supplies, LCD displays, large-scale integration, class D audio and of course the demise of the thermionic tube, to name but a few. The result is often that the appliance itself runs from a low voltage. Where once you would have had a pile of mains plugs competing for your sockets, now you will have an equivalent pile of wall-wart power supplies. Even those appliances with a mains cord will probably still contain a switch-mode power supply inside.
We’ve all taken apart a small toy and pulled out one of those little can motors. “With this! I can do anything!” we proclaim as we hold it aloft. Ten minutes later, after we’ve made it spin a few times, it goes into the drawer never to be seen again.
It always seems like they are in everything but getting them to function usefully in a project is a fool’s errand. What the heck are they for? Where do people learn the black magic needed to make them function? It’s easy enough to pull out the specification sheet for them. Most of them are made by or are made to imitate motors from the Mabuchi Motor Corporation of Japan. That company alone is responsible for over 1.5 billion tiny motors a year.
More than Just the Specs
In the specs, you’ll find things like running speed, voltage, stall current, and stall torque. But they offer anything but a convincing application guide, or a basic set of assumptions an engineer should make before using one. This is by no means a complete list, and a skip over the electrics nearly completely as that aspect of DC motors in unreasonably well documented.
The first thing to note is that they really aren’t meant to drive anything directly. They are meant to be isolated from the actual driving by a gear train. This is for a lot of reasons. The first is that they typically spin very fast, 6,000 – 15,000 rpm is not atypical for even the tiniest motor. So even though the datasheet may throw out something impressive like it being a 3 watt motor, it’s not exactly true. Rather, it’s 3 N*m/s per 15,000 rotations per minute motor. Or a mere 1.2 milliwatt per rotation, which is an odd sort of unit that I’m just using for demonstration, but it gives you the feeling that there’s not a ton of “oomph” available. However, if you start to combine lots of rotations together using a gear train, you can start to get some real power out of it, even with the friction losses.
The only consumer items I can think of that regularly break this rule are very cheap children’s toys, which aren’t designed to last long anyway, and those powered erasers and coffee stirrers. Both of these are taking for granted that their torque needs are low and their speed needs are high, or that the motor burning out is no real loss for the world (at least in the short term).
This is because the motors derate nearly instantly. Most of these motors are hundreds of loops of very thin enameled wire wrapped around some silicon steel plates spot welded or otherwise coerced together. This means that even a small heat event of a few milliseconds could be enough to burn through the 10 micrometer thick coating insulating the coils from each other. Practically speaking, if you stall a little motor a few times in a row you might as well throw it away, because there’s no guessing what its actual performance rating is anymore. Likewise, consistently difficult start-ups, over voltage, over current, and other abuse can quickly ruin the motor. Because the energy it produces is meant to spread over lots of rotations, the motor is simply not designed (nor could it be reasonably built) to produce it all in one dramatic push.
This brings me to another small note about these tiny motors. Most of them don’t have the carbon brushes one begins to expect from the more powerful motors. Mostly they have a strip of copper that’s been stamped to have a few fingers pressing against the commutator. There’s lots of pros to these metal contacts and it’s not all cost cutting, but unless you have managed to read “Electrical Contacts” by Ragnar Holm and actually understood it, they’re hard to explain. There’s all sorts of magic. For example, just forming the right kind of oxide film on the surface of the commutator is a battle all on its own.
It’s a weird trade off. You can make the motor cheaper with the metal contacts, for one. Metal contacts also have much lower friction than carbon or graphite brushes. They’re quieter, and they also transfer less current, which may seem like a bad thing, but if you have a stalled motor with hairlike strands transferring the pixies around the last thing you’d want to do is transfer as much current as possible through them. However, a paper thin sheet of copper is not going to last very long either.
So it comes down to this, at least as I understand it: if bursts of very fast, low energy, high efficiency motion is all that’s required of the motor over its operational life then the metal strip brushes are perfect. If you need to run the motor for a long stretches at a time and noise isn’t an issue then the carbon brush version will work, just don’t stall it. It will cost a little bit more.
Take Care of Your Tiny Motors
To touch one other small mechanical consideration. They are not designed to take any axial load at all, or really even any radial load either. Most of them have a plastic or aluminum bronze bushing, press-fit into a simple stamped steel body. So if you design a gearbox for one of these be sure to put as little force as possible on the bearing surfaces. If you’ve ever taken apart a small toy you’ve likely noticed that the motor can slide back and forth a bit in its mounting. This is why.
Lastly, because most of these motors are just not intended to run anywhere near their written maximum specifications it is best to assume that their specifications are a well intentioned but complete lie. Most designs work with the bottom 25% of the max number written on the spreadsheet. Running the motor anywhere near the top is usually guaranteed to brick it over time.
These are useful and ubiquitous motors, but unlike their more powerful cousins they have their own set of challenges to work with. However, considering you can buy them by the pound for cheaper than candy, there’s a good reason to get familiar with them.
Taking a break from his book, “How to Gain Enemies and Encourage Hostility,” [FPS Weapons] shows us how to build our own handheld EMP generator which can be used to generate immediate dislike from anyone working on something electronic at the hackerspace.
The device is pretty simple. A DC source, in this case an 18650 lithium battery cell, sends power to an “Ultra High Voltage 1000kV Ignition Coil” (as the eBay listing calls it), when a button is pressed. A spark gap is used to dump a large amount of magic pixies into the coil all at once, which generates a strong enough magnetic pulse to induce an unexpected voltage inside of a piece of digital electronics. This usually manages to fire a reset pin or something equivalent, disrupting the device’s normal operation.
While you’re not likely to actually damage anything in a dramatic way with this little EMP, it can still interrupt an important memory write or radio signal and damage it that way. It’s a great way to get the absolute shock of your life if you’re not careful. Either from the HVDC converter or the FCC fines. Video after the break.
A few summers ago, Google and IEEE announced a one million dollar prize to build the most efficient and compact DC to AC inverter. It was called the Little Box Challenge, with the goal of a 2kW inverter with a power density greater than 50 Watts per cubic inch.
To put this goal into perspective, the DC inverter that would plug into a cigarette lighter in your car has a power density of about 1 or 2 Watts per cubic inch. Very expensive inverters meant for solar installations have a power density of about 5 Watts per cubic inch. This competition aimed to build an inverter with ten times the power density of what is available today.
Now, the results are in, and the results are extremely surprising. The best entry didn’t just meet the goal of 50 W/in³, it blew the goal out of the water.
The winning entry (PDF) comes from CE+T Power, and comes in a package with a volume of 13.77 in³. That’s a power density of 143 W/in³ for a unit you can hold in the palm of your hand. The biggest innovations come from the use of GaN transistors and an incredible thermal management solution.