Hackaday Prize Entry: Internets Of Energy

More and more, the power grid is distributed. Houses have solar panels on their roofs, and where possible, that excess power is sold back to the grid. The current trend is towards smart meters that record consumption for an entire household and relay it back to the power plant every day or so. The future is decentralized, through, and a meter that is smart once a day simply won’t do. A team on Hackaday.io has put together the ultimate in decentralized energy modernization. It’s the InternetS of Energy, and it removes the need for power companies completely.

The team has identified a few key features of the current power grid that don’t make sense in the age of the Internet. The power company doesn’t have extremely granular data, and sending power over long distances is either inefficient or expensive. The solution for this is to have distributed power plants, all connected together into a truly intelligent power grid.

This InternetS of Energy uses open-source energy monitoring systems running the Ethereum client to push power-usage data onto the blockchain. This makes the grid secure and pseudonymous, and if the banking industry is any indication, something like this is the future of economic transactions.

While it may not be the best solution for mature power grids, it is an extremely interesting avenue of research for developing nations. Wherever local resources allow it, electricity can be generated and sent to where it’s needed. It’s exactly what the power grid would be if it were re-designed today from scratch, and an excellent candidate for the 2016 Hackaday Prize.

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EPROM Timer

[glitch] had a cheap EPROM eraser with very few features. Actually, that might be giving it too much credit: it’s barely more than a UV light that turns on when it’s plugged in and turns off when it’s plugged out unplugged. Of course it would be nice to implement some safety features, so he decided he’d hook it up to a software-controlled power outlet.

Of course, controlling a relay that’s wired to mains is old hat around here, and in fact, we’ve covered [glitch]’s optoisolated mains switch already. He’s gone a little beyond the normal mains relay project with this one, though. Rather than use a microcontroller to run the relay, [glitch] wrote a simple Ruby script on his computer to turn the EPROM eraser on for the precise amount of time that is required to erase the memory.The Ruby script drives the relay control directly over a USB to serial adapter’s RTS handshake pin.

[glitch]’s hack reminds us that if you just need a quick couple bits of slow output, a USB-serial converter might be just the ticket. You could imagine driving everything from standard lamps to your 3D printer’s bed heater (provided you use similar hardware), but it’s especially helpful for [glitch] who claims to forget to turn off the eraser when it’s done its job, which leaves a potentially dangerous UV source just lying about. It’s always a good idea to add safety features to a dangerous piece of equipment!

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.

Swiss Project Looking To Harness Kite Power

Switzerland has bought us many things: the cuckoo clock, cheese with holes in it, and.. kite power? That’s the idea of a Swiss project that is trying to tap the energy of a regular wind that blows between Lake Geneva and the Alps. The group hopes to build large kites that fly at about 150 meters above the ground, with a generator and other components on the ground. The way that this wind energy is converted into electricity is interesting: the kite is pulled up by the wind, spiraling higher and pulling the cable which drives the generator. Once it reaches a maximum height, the kite is trimmed so it sinks down to a lower altitude, and the kite is trimmed again to catch the wind and climb.

It’s a fascinating idea: by controlling the kites, the system could produce power on demand. As long as the wind is up, of course, but in this region of Switzerland, that isn’t an issue, as the wind is very predictable. It doesn’t require as much permanent infrastructure as a wind turbine, and kites are much more attractive than turbines. This makes us wonder if a system like this would be adaptable to a smaller scale: could you build a portable or off-grid system for hiking in windy areas that could charge a battery this way?

The project webpage hasn’t seen any updates since 2013, but the research project seems to still be alive and kicking. Anyone have any details or wild speculation?

(Related, but only tangentially, video of Thomas Dolby lip-synching below the break.)

Via The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, thanks to [Austin Bentley]

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Thorough Macbook Charger Teardown Reveals Some Complex Circuitry

Apple has a reputation in the tech world as being overpriced, and nowhere is that perception more common than in the Hackaday comments. The standard argument, of course, is that for a device with equivalent specs, Apple charges a lot more than its competitors. That argument is not without its flaws, especially when you consider factors other than simple specs like RAM and processor speed, and take into account materials used and build quality. But, as this teardown by [Ken Shirriff] shows, Apple’s attention to detail extends beyond simply machining Macbook bodies out of aluminum.

In his teardown, [Ken Shirriff] thoroughly investigates and describes all of the components and circuitry that go into the ubiquitous Macbook charger. Why does it cost $79? Other than the MagSafe connector, what makes it any better than the charger that came with your Toshiba Satellite in the ’90s? Isn’t it just a transformer to convert AC power to DC?

components1

[Ken Shirriff] answers all of this and more, and you may be surprised by what he found. As it turns out, the Macbook charger isn’t just a transformer in a plastic case with a fancy magnetic connector. There is a lot of high-quality circuitry involved to make the power output as clean and stable as possible, and to avoid potential damage to your Macbook that could be caused by dirty power or voltage spikes. Does it justify the costs, even with so many reported failures? That’s for you to decide, but there is no questioning that Apple put more thought into their chargers than simply converting AC to DC.

Simplest Electricity Monitoring Solution Yet

Monitoring your home’s energy use is the best way to get a handle on your utility bills. After all, you can’t manage what you can’t measure! The only problem is that most home energy monitoring systems are cumbersome, complicated, or expensive. At least, until now. [Kevin] has created a new electricity meter based on Particle Photons which should alleviate all of these problems.

The Particle Photon (we get confused on the naming scheme but believe this the new version of what used to be called the Spark Core) is a WiFi-enabled development board. [Kevin] is using two, one to drive the display and one to monitor the electricity usage. This part is simple enough, each watt-hour is accompanied by a pulse of an LED on the meter which is picked up by a TLS257 light-to-voltage sensor. The display is a Nextion TFT HMI (touch screen) which is pretty well suited for this application. The data is corralled by emoncms, part of the OpenEnergyMonitor platform, which ties everything together.

For a project that has been done more than a few times, this one does a great job of keeping the price down while maintaining a great aesthetic. Make sure to check out the video below to see it in action.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Real Time Power Monitoring

The Internet of Things promises real-time monitoring of appliances, HVAC, and just about everything else in the home. One of the biggest technologies behind this is the smart meter, an electrical meter that will tell you how much power you’re sucking down from the grid at any given moment. A meter need not be smart, though, because [jlbrian7]’s entry for the Hackaday Prize does the same thing without an entirely new meter.

[jlbrian]’s power monitor is a non-intrusive monitor for electrical systems, allowing anyone to retrofit an electrical meter – or just a single breaker panel – with smart meter tech. It uses a small current transformer to monitor the amperage running through a wire. By sending that information to the Internet, anyone with this system gets power monitoring with much higher temporal resolution than what the power company provides in a monthly bill.

As a nice little addition to his Power Monitor, [jlbrian] is adding a few environmental sensors to his data logging platform. This allows for a little bit of interpolation to figure out what all that power is actually being used for; if the power turns on and a few minutes later the temperature drops, there’s a pretty good chance the AC just went on.

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