Electrical Grid Demystified: How Energy Gets Where Its Needed

Even if you’re reading this on a piece of paper that was hand-delivered to you in the Siberian wilderness, somewhere someone had to use energy to run a printer and also had to somehow get all of this information from the energy-consuming information superhighway. While we rely on the electric grid for a lot of our daily energy needs like these, it’s often unclear exactly how the energy from nuclear fuel rods, fossil fuels, or wind and solar gets turned into electrons that somehow get into the things that need those electrons. We covered a little bit about the history of the electric grid and how it came to be in the first of this series of posts, but how exactly does energy get delivered to us over the grid? Continue reading “Electrical Grid Demystified: How Energy Gets Where Its Needed”

Hacking on the Weirdest ESP Module

Sometimes I see a component that’s bizarre enough that I buy it just to see if I can actually do something with it. That’s the case with today’s example, the ESP-14. At first glance, you’d ask yourself what AI Thinker, the maker of many of the more popular ESP8266 modules, was thinking.

The ESP-14 takes the phenomenally powerful ESP8266 chip and buries it underneath one of the cheapest microcontrollers around: the 8-bit STM8S003 “value line” chip. Almost all of the pins of the ESP chip are locked inside the RF cage’s metal tomb — only the power, bootloader, and serial TX/RX pins see the light of day, and the TX/RX pins are shared with the STM8S. The rest of the module’s pins are dedicated to the STM8S. Slaving the ESP8266 to an STM8S is like taking a Ferrari and wrapping it inside a VW Beetle.

I had never touched an STM8 chip before, and just wanted to see what I could do with this strange beast. In the end, ironically, I ended up doing something that wouldn’t be too far out of place on Alibaba, but with a few very Hackaday twists: a monitor for our washer and dryer that reports power usage over MQTT, programmed in Forth with a transparent WiFi serial bridge into the chip for interactive debugging without schlepping down into the basement. Everything’s open, tweakable, and the Forth implementation for the STM8S was even developed here on Hackaday.io.

It’s a weird project for the weirdest of ESP modules. I thought I’d walk you through it and see if it sparks you to come up with any alternative uses for the ESP8266-and-STM8S odd couple that is the ESP-14.

Continue reading “Hacking on the Weirdest ESP Module”

Hacked Television Uses No Power In Standby Mode

How much effort do you put into conserving energy throughout your daily routine? Diligence in keeping lights and appliances turned off are great steps, but those selfsame appliances likely still draw power when not in use. Seeing the potential to reduce energy wasted by TVs in standby mode, the [Electrical Energy Management Lab] team out of the University of Bristol have designed a television that uses no power in standby mode.

The feat is accomplished through the use of a chip designed to activate at currents as low as 20 picoamps.  It, and a series of five photodiodes, is mounted in a receiver which attaches to the TV. The receiver picks up the slight infrared pulse from the remote, inducing a slight current in the receiving photodiodes, providing enough power to the chip which in turn flips the switch to turn on the TV. A filter prevents ambient light from activating the receiver, and while the display appears to take a few seconds longer to turn on than an unmodified TV, that seems a fair trade off if you aren’t turning it on and off every few minutes.

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So Where’s My Low Voltage DC Wall Socket?

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.

"Get ready for a life that smells of hot plastic, son!" John Atherton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
“Get ready for a life that smells of hot plastic, son!” John Atherton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
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.

Continue reading “So Where’s My Low Voltage DC Wall Socket?”

Bitbanging Qualcomm Charge Controllers

With more and more manufacturers moving to USB-C, it seems as though the trusty USB port is getting more and more entrenched. Not that that’s a bad thing, either; having a universal standard like this is great for simplicity and interconnectability. However, if you’re still stuck with USB 2.0 ports on your now completely obsolete one-year-old phone, there’s still some hope that you can at least get rapid charging. [hugatry] was able to manipulate Qualcomm’s rapid charging protocol to enable it to work with any device.

Continue reading “Bitbanging Qualcomm Charge Controllers”

Hackaday Links: November 6, 2016

Here’s a life protip for you: get really, really good at one video game. Not all of them; you only want to be good – top 10% at least – at one video game. For me, that’s Galaga. It’s a great arcade game, and now it’s IoT. [justin] has been working on publishing high scores from a Galaga board to the Internet. The electronics are actually pretty simple – just a latch on a memory address, and an ESP8266 for comms.

On with the mergers and acquisitions! Lattice has been sold to Canyon Bridge, a Chinese private equity firm, for $1.3 Billion. Readers of Hackaday should know Lattice as the creators of the iCE40 FPGA platform, famously the target of the only Open Source FPGA toolchain.

The Internet of Chocolate Chip Cookies. Yes, it’s a Kickstarter for a cookie machine, because buying a tube of pre-made cookie dough is too hard. There is one quote I would like to point out in this Kickstarter: “Carbon Fiber Convection Heating Element (1300W) is more energy-efficient than traditional electric elements and heats up instantly.” Can someone please explain how a heating element can be more efficient? What does that mean? Aren’t all resistive heating elements 100% efficient by default? Or are they 0% efficient? The Internet of Cookies broke my brain.

The USB Rubber Ducky is a thumb-drive sized device that, when plugged into a computer, presents itself as a USB HID keyboard, opens up a CLI, inputs a few commands, and could potentially do evil stuff. The USB Rubber Ducky costs $45, a Raspberry Pi Zero and a USB connector costs $6. [tim] built his own USB Rubber Ducky, and the results are great.

Living off the Grid, on Water Power

When you think of living off the grid, you often think of solar power. But if you’ve got a good head, and enough flow, water power can provide a much more consistent flow of electrons. All it requires is a little bit of engineering, epic amounts of manual labor, and some tricks of the trade, and you’ll have your own miniature hydroelectric power plant.

[Homo Ludens], the playful ape, has what looks like a fantastic self-sufficient home/cabin in a beautiful part of Chile. His webpages are a tremendous diary of DIY, but the microhydro plant stands out.

You might expect that building a hydro plant involves a lot of piping, and trenching to lie that pipe in, but the exact extent, documented in many photos, is sobering. At places, the pipe needed to be bent, and [Homo Ludens] built a wire-mesh pipe heater to facilitate the work — with the help of a few friends to weigh the pipe down at either end and create the bend. The self-wound power transformer is also a beauty.

There’s a lot more detail here than we can possibly get into, so go check it out. And if you’re in the mood for more hydro, we’ve recently run a writeup of a less ambitious, but still tidy, project that you should see. Or you could just rip apart an old washing machine.

Thanks [Patrick] for the great tip!