Hacked CCFL Inverter becomes an Arc Lighter

[GreatScott!] needs to light off fireworks with an arc rather than a flame, because “fireworks and plasma” is cooler than fireworks and no plasma. To that end, he attempted to reverse engineer an arc lighter, but an epoxy potted high-voltage assembly thwarted him. Refusing to accept defeat, he modified a CCFL inverter into an arc lighter, and the process is pretty educational.

With his usual impeccable handwriting and schematic drawing skills, [GreatScott!] documents that his CCFL inverter is a resonant Royer oscillator producing a sine wave of about 37 kHz, which is then boosted to about 2400 volts. That’s pretty good, but nowhere near the 15 kilovolts needed for a self-sustaining arc across electrodes placed 5 mm apart. A little math told him that he could achieve this by rewinding the transformer’s primary with only 4 turns. After some testing, the rewound transformer was fitted back into the Royer circuit and with a few modifications the arc was struck.

It’s not a finished project yet, and we’re looking forward to seeing how [GreatScott!] puts this to use. For now, we’re grateful for the lesson is Royer oscillators and rewinding transformers. But if you’d rather hack an off-the-shelf arc lighter, there’s always this arc lighter pyrography pen, or this mini plasma cutter.

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Portable Battery Bank Only Looks Like a Bomb

If one of the design goals of [wsw4jr]’s portable solar battery bank build was to make something that the local bomb squad would not hesitate to detonate with a water cannon if he leaves it unattended, then mission accomplished.

We kid, but really, the whole thing has a sort of “Spy vs. Spy” vibe that belies its simple purpose. A battery bank is just an array of batteries, some kind of charge controller, and an inverter. The batteries are charged by any means possible – in this case by a small array of solar panels. The mains output of the inverter is used to power whatever doodads you have.

[wsw4jr] didn’t mention of the inverter specs, but from the size of the batteries and the wiring – both of which he admits are not yet up to snuff in his prototype – it’s a safe guess that the intended loads are pretty small.  Tipping the scale at 60 pounds, the unit tends toward the luggable end of the portability scale. Still, this could be a great tool for working out in the field, or maybe even tailgating.

We’ve seen expedient battery banks and emergency power from cordless drill batteries before, but this build is quite a bit more sophisticated. We’ll be watching for updates on this one.

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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