Ask Hackaday: Dude, Where’s My MOSFET?

(Bipolar Junction) Transistors versus MOSFETs: both have their obvious niches. FETs are great for relatively high power applications because they have such a low on-resistance, but transistors are often easier to drive from low voltage microcontrollers because all they require is a current. It’s uncanny, though, how often we find ourselves in the middle between these extremes. What we’d really love is a part that has the virtues of both.

The ask in today’s Ask Hackaday is for your favorite part that fills a particular gap: a MOSFET device that’s able to move a handful of amps of low-voltage current without losing too much to heat, that is still drivable from a 3.3 V microcontroller, with bonus points for PWM ability at a frequency above human hearing. Imagine driving a moderately robust small DC robot motor forwards with a microcontroller, all running on a LiPo — a simple application that doesn’t need a full motor driver IC, but requires a high-efficiency, moderate current, and low-voltage-logic compatible transistor. If you’ve been here and done that, what did you use?

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Faux-AI Clapper Almost Seems to be Listening

When a job can be handled with a microcontroller, [devttys0] likes to buck the trend and build a circuit that requires no coding. Such was the case with this “Clapper”-inspired faux-AI light controller, which ends up being a great lesson in analog design.

The goal was to create a poor man’s JARVIS – something to turn the workshop lights on with a free-form vocal command. Or, at least to make it look that way. This is an all-analog circuit with a couple of op amps and a pair of comparators, so it can’t actually process what’s being said. “Aziz! Light!” will work just as well as any other phrase since the circuit triggers on the amplitude and duration of the spoken command. The AI-lite effect comes from the clever use of the comparators, RC networks to control delays, and what amounts to an AND gate built of discrete MOSFETs. The end result is a circuit that waits until you finish talking to trigger the lights, making it seems like it’s actually analyzing what you say.

We always enjoy [devttys0]’s videos because they’re great lessons in circuit design. From block diagram to finished prototype, everything is presented in logical steps, and there’s always something to learn. His analog circuits that demonstrate math concepts was a real eye-opener for us. And if you want some background on the height of 1980s AI tech that inspired this build, check out the guts of the original “Clapper”.

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R/C Bot Takes Your Strawberries Away

Don’t let the friendly smile on this RC cart fool you, it will take your strawberries away — though that’s kinda the point. It’s an RC car that [transistor-man] and a few friends modified for carrying freshly picked strawberries at strawberry fields so that you don’t have to.

RC strawberry carrying robot before putting on the cooler
RC strawberry carrying robot – WIP

They started with an older Traxxas Emaxx, a 4-wheel drive RC monster truck. The team also bought a suitable sized water cooler at a local hardware store. A quick load test showed that 5lbs collapsed the springs and shock absorbers, causing the chassis to sink close to the ground. The team had two options: switching to stronger springs or locking out the springs altogether. They decided to replace one set of shocks with metal plates effectively locking them. After that it was time for some CAD work, followed by the use of a water jet to cut some aluminum plate. They soon had a mounting plate for the water cooler to sit in. This mounting plate was attached to 4 posts which originally held the vehicle’s Lexan body. A bungee cord wrapped around the cooler and posts on the mounting plate holds the cooler in place.

Thermal image of bad MOSFET
Thermal image of bad MOSFET

Some initial testing showed that the vehicle moved too fast even in low gear and tended to tip over, as you can see in the first video below. Some practice helped but a 3:1 reduction planetary gearbox brought the vehicle down to walking speed, making a big difference. A trip was arranged to go to local strawberry picking field at Red Fire Farms, but not without some excitement first. At 1AM the UNIK 320A High Voltage Speed controller emitted some magic smoke. A quick check with a thermal-camera found the culprit, one of the MOSFETs had failed, and after swapping it with one that was close enough they were back in business.

As you can see in the second video below, testing in the strawberry field went very well, though it wasn’t without some tipping. Kids also found it a fun diversion from picking strawberries, alternating between mock fright and delight.

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Raspberry Pi Gets Turned On

The Raspberry Pi and other similar Linux-based single board computers simplify many projects. However, one issue with Linux is that it doesn’t like being turned off abruptly. Things have gotten better, and you can certainly configure things to minimize the risk, but–in general–shutting a Linux system down while it is running will eventually lead to file system corruption.

If your project has an interface, you can always provide a shutdown option, but that doesn’t help if your application is headless. You can provide a shutdown button, but that leaves the problem of turning the device back on.

[Ivan] solved this problem with–what else–an Arduino (see the video below). Simplistically, the Arduino reads a button and uses a FET to turn off the power to the Pi. The reason for the Arduino, is that the tiny processor (which draws less than a Pi and doesn’t mind being shut down abruptly) can log into the Pi and properly shut it down. The real advantage, though, is that you could use other Arduino inputs to determine when to turn the Pi on and off.

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Arduino Nano Runs Battery Spot Welder

Soldering might look like a tempting and cheap alternative when building or repairing a battery pack, but the heat of the iron could damage the cell, and the resulting connection won’t be as good as a weld. Fortunately, though, a decent spot welder isn’t that tough to build, as [KaeptnBalu] shows us with his Arduino-controlled battery spot welder.

spot_welder_zoomWhen it comes to delivering the high currents necessary for spot welding, the Arduino Nano is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. But the need for a precisely controlled welding pulse makes the microcontroller a natural for this build, as long as the current handling is outsourced. In [KaeptnBalu]’s build, he lets an array of beefy MOSFETs on a separate PCB handle the welding current. The high-current wiring is particularly interesting – heavy gauge stranded wire is split in half, formed into a U, tinned, and each leg gets soldered to the MOSFET board. Welding tips are simply solid copper wire, and the whole thing is powered by a car battery, or maybe two if the job needs extra amps. The video below shows the high-quality welds the rig can produce.

Spot welders are a favorite on Hackaday, and we’ve seen both simple and complicated builds. This build hits the sweet spot of complexity and functionality, and having one on hand would open up a lot of battery-hacking possibilities.

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You Can Have my TIPs When You Pry them from my Cold, Dead Hands

We’ve seen a growing number of posts and recommendations around the net regarding components, specifically transistors. “Don’t use old parts” they cry,  “Go with newer components.”  You can often find these recommendations on Arduino forums. This all came to a head with a page called “Do Not TIP,” which was linked in the Arduino subreddit.  This page belongs to [Tom Jennings], creator of Fidonet, and one of the early authors of what would become Phoenix BIOS. [Tom] and a few others have been calling for everyone to send their old parts to the landfill – not use them, nor gift them to new experimenters. Get them out of the food chain. No offense to [Tom], but we have to disagree. These parts are still perfectly usable for experienced designers, and have a lot to offer new hardware hackers.

TIP is the part number prefix for a series of power transistors created by Texas Instruments.  In fact, “TIP” stands for Texas Instruments Power. The series was originally released in 1969. Yes, that’s right, 1969. Why are we still using parts designed when man first walked on the moon? The same reason people are still using the 555 timer: they’re simple, they’re easily available, they’re robust, and most of all, they get the job done. The TIP series has been used in thousands of classes, tutorials both online and off, and millions of projects over the years. Much of that documentation is already out there on the internet. The TIP series is also out in the distribution channel – they’ve been used for 40 years. Any retail shop that stocks a few electronics parts will have at least one of the TIP series.

The TIP series aren’t always the best transistors for the job. However, for most hobbyist-designed circuits, we don’t need the best performance, nor the best price – we’re going to use the parts we have on hand. There is always room to improve once you get the basic circuit working.

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How CMOS Works: MOSFETs, JFETs, IGFETS and More

CMOS opened the door for many if not most of the properties needed for today’s highly integrated circuits and low power portable and mobile devices. This really couldn’t happen until the speeds and current drive capabilities of CMOS caught up to the other technologies, but catch up they did.

Nowadays CMOS Small Scale Integration (SSI) logic families, I.E. the gates used in external logic, offer very fast speeds and high current drive capability as well as supporting the low voltages found in modern designs. Likewise the Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) designs, or Very Very Large Scale if you like counting the letter V when talking, are possible due to low power dissipation as well as other factors.

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