Afroman And The Case Of The Suspect Inverter

If you search the internet for 12 volt to mains AC inverter designs, the chances are you’ll encounter a simple circuit which has become rather ubiquitous. It features a 4047 CMOS astable multivibrator chip driving a pair of MOSFETs in a push-pull configuration which in turn drive a centre-tapped mains transformer in reverse. Not a new design, its variants and antecedents could be found even in those pre-Internet days when circuits came from books on the shelves of your local lending library.

afroman-inverter-featured[Afroman], no stranger to these pages, has published a video in which he investigates the 4047 inverter, and draws attention to some of its shortcomings. It is not the circuit’s lack of frequency stability with voltage that worries him, but the high-frequency ringing at the point of the square-wave switching when the device has an inadequate load. This can reach nearly 600 volts peak-to-peak with a 120 volt American transformer, or over a kilovolt if you live somewhere with 230 volt mains. The Internet’s suggested refinement, a capacitor on the output, only made the situation worse. As he remarks, it’s fine for powering a lightbulb, but you wouldn’t want it near your iPhone charger.

If this video achieves anything, it is a lesson to the uninitiated that while simple and popular designs can sometimes be absolute gems it must not be assumed that this is always the case.

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Google Contest Builds More Efficient Inverters

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.

Other finalists for this competition include Schneider Electric Team from France that managed a 100 W/in³ and a Virginia Tech team that managed a power density of 61.2 W/in³.

Thanks [wvdv2002] for the tip.

Gutted USB Power Packs run Your TV

With a computer in every pocket, being tethered to large mains-powered appliances is a bit passe. No longer must you be trapped before the boob tube when you can easily watch YouTube on your phone. But you might be jonesing for the big screen experience in the middle of a power outage, in which case learning to build a simple battery bank built from cheap cell-phone power packs might be a good life skill to practice.

Looking more for proof of concept than long-term off-grid usability from his battery bank, [Stephen] cobbled together a quick battery bank from 18650 lithium ion batteries and a small 300W inverter. All the hardware was had on the cheap from an outfit called Cd-r King, a Phillipines-based discount gadgetorium we’d like to see in the states. He got a handful of USB power packs and harvested the single 18650 battery from each, whipped up a quick battery holder from 1/2″ PVC pipe and some bolts to connect the inverter. With four batteries in series he was able to run a flat-screen TV with ease, as well as a large floor fan – say, is that a Mooltipass on [Stephen]’s shelf in the background? And what’s nice about the gutted USB power packs is that they can still be used to recharge the batteries.

As [Stephen] admits, this is a simple project and there’s plenty of room to experiment. More batteries in parallel for longer run times is an obvious first step. He might get some ideas from this laptop battery bank project, or even step up to Tesla Li-ion battery hacking – although we doubt Cd-r King will be of much help with the latter.

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Logic Noise: Sweet, Sweet Oscillator Sounds

Welcome to part one of a series taking you down the rabbit hole of DIY electronic synthesizers based on (largely) CMOS logic chips. Instead of synths being commodity gear made by large corporate enterprises, we’ll be building with the cheapest available parts, using and misusing digital logic. In short, don’t expect pre-packaged smooth tones, because we’ll be making creative noise machines.

If you’re the chiptunes type, you’ll probably find something you like here. If you’re the circuit bender or electro-noise-punk type, this is gonna be right up your alley. If you just like to see CMOS chips wriggle and squirm in unintended ways, feel free to look over my shoulder. If you’re the type who insists that a screwdriver can’t be used to pry open a paint can, then maybe you’d better move along. There’s a thin line between the glitch as bug and the glitch as interesting discovery, and we’ll be dancing all over it.

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Emergency Power Based on Cordless Drill Batteries

[Don Eduardo] took matters into his own hands after experiencing a days-long power outage at his house. And like most of us have done at least one, he managed to burn his fingers on a regulator in the process. That’s because he prototyped a way to use power tool batteries as an emergency source — basing his circuit on a 7812 linear regulator which got piping hot in no time flat.

His next autodidactic undertaking carried him into the realm of switch-mode buck converters (learn a bit about these if unfamiliar). The device steps down the ~18V output to 12V regulated for devices meant for automotive or marine. We really like see the different solutions he came up with for interfacing with the batteries which have a U-shaped prong with contacts on opposite sides.

The final iteration, which is pictured above, builds a house of cards on top of the buck converter. After regulating down to 12V he feeds the output into a “cigarette-lighter” style inverter to boost back to 110V AC. The hardware is housed inside of a scrapped charger for the batteries, with the appropriate 3-prong socket hanging out the back. We think it’s a nice touch to include LED feedback for the battery level.

We would like to hear your thoughts on this technique. Is there a better way that’s as easy and adaptive (you don’t have to alter the devices you’re powering) as this one?

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An Interview with Tesla Battery Hacker [wk057]

We covered [wk057] and his Tesla Model S battery teardown back in September. Since then we had some time to catch up with him, and ask a few questions.

You’ve mentioned that you have a (non hacked) Tesla Model S. What do you think of the car?

It’s the best car I’ve ever driven or owned, period. Not to get too into it, but, I love it. I’ve put almost 20,000 miles on it already in under a year and I have no real complaints. Software feature requests… but no complaints. After almost a year, multiple 1700-miles-in-a-weekend trips, and an overall great experience… I can never go back to a gas vehicle after this. It would be like going back to horses and buggies.

A salvage Tesla Lithium battery had to be expensive compared to a Lead Acid setup. What made you go with the Tesla?

Actually, if you consider that the Model S battery is already pre-setup as a high-capacity pack, contains the wiring to do so, and the modules are much more energy and power dense than any lead acid battery bank, it’s actually almost cheaper than a comparable lead acid bank and all the trimmings.

I haven’t officially weighed them, but the modules from the Model S battery are roughly 80 lbs. 80 lbs for a 5.3 kWh battery is around 15 lbs per kWh, which is impressive. For comparison, a decent lead acid battery will have a little over 1 kWh (of low-rate discharge capacity) and weigh almost the same.

Also, the Tesla pack is much more powerful than a lead acid bank of the same capacity.
Generally a lead acid battery bank would have a capacity that would only be realized with slow discharges, so, 1/20C. Much over that and you sacrifice capacity for power. 1/20C for an 85kWh pack is only 4.25kW, barely enough for a central air unit and some lights without losing capacity.

Now the Tesla pack can be discharged (based on how it does so in the vehicle) at up to 3.75C for short periods, and at 1/2C continuously without really affecting the overall capacity of the pack. That means I can run 10x more power than lead acid without a loss in overall charge capacity. Leads to a much more flexible battery solution since the loads will, in reality, always be so low that this will not even come into play with the Tesla pack, but would almost always be a factor with lead acid.

Charging is also somewhat better with the Tesla battery. Charge a lead acid battery at a 1/2C and it will boil. Charge the Tesla pack at 1/2C (42kW) and it might warm up a few degrees. Oh, and the charging losses at high rates are much less than lead acid also.
Overall, without continuing to yack about the technical aspects, it’s just a much better battery, takes up less space, weighs less, and has more power available.

There are likely decent arguments for other solutions, but the rest aside, this one won out because it was definitely more interesting.

Click past the break to read the rest of our interview with [wk057]!

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An Arduino power inverter

If you’ve got a few solar panels lying around, or even if you want some 120/230 V AC power from a few 12 Volt batteries, you’ll need a power inverter. Sure, you can drop on down to any big box store and pick one of these up, or you can be like [Michael] and build your own (Danish, translation).

[Michael] found himself in the possession of a few halogen light transformers and decided to make use of them by building a DC to AC power inverter. The inverter is fairly simple – just the transformer, a few MOSFETS, and an ATMega0168 for software control that includes a ‘soft start’ feature that prevents power surges on startup.

The circuit is simple enough to etch at home, although a soldermask and a nice insulated enclosure would probably be ideal for this application.