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.

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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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Sending Music Long Distance Using A Laser

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen DIYers sending music over a laser beam but the brothers [Armand] and [Victor] are certainly in contention for sending the music the longest distance, 452 meter/1480 feet from their building, over the tops of a few houses, through a treetop and into a friend’s apartment. The received sound quality is pretty amazing too.

In case you’ve never encountered this before, the light of the laser is modulated with a signal directly from the audio source, making it an analog transmission. The laser is a 250mW diode laser bought from eBay. It’s powered through a 5 volt 7805 voltage regulator fed by a 12V battery. The signal from the sound source enters the circuit through a step-up transformer, isolating it so that no DC from the source enters. The laser’s side of the transformer feeds the base of a transistor. They included a switch so that the current from the regulator can either go through the collector and emitter of the transistor that’s controlled by the sound source, giving a strong modulation, or the current can go directly to the laser while modulation is provided through just the transistor’s base and emitter. The schematic for the circuit is given at the end of their video, which you can see after the break.

They receive the beam in their friend’s apartment using solar cells, which then feed a fairly big amplifier and speakers. From the video you can hear the surprisingly high quality sounds that results. So check it out. It also includes a little Benny Hill humor.

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Hackaday Dictionary: Transformers

Funny stuff, electricity. It’s all about the volts and the amps, and controlling these two factors. Most of the time, the electricity coming into your device is at a higher voltage than you need, so you have to convert it down to something more usable. The easiest way to do this is with a transformer.

The transformer in your power supply takes a high voltage from the mains and converts it down into a lower voltage to power your gadgets. You’ll find one in all power supplies, from the miniature USB version that powers your cell phone to the big ones hanging on a telephone pole that drive your home’s mains electricity. Although these transformers are different sizes, they share the same fundamental design.

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Powering A Lot Of Nixie Tubes

[Limpkin] has an idea for a project that uses a lot of IN-9 Nixie tubes. Where a Nixie tube clock would only use four or six tubes, [Limpkin] is looking at fifty IN-9 bar graph Nixie tubes. These tubes only light up above 100 Volts and draw about half an amp. That’s 64 Watts, according to the math on the project page, so how does [Limpkin] plan on powering these tubes? With a big high voltage power supply.

The power supply [Limpkin] designed is more or less what you would expect to find in any power supply. There’s a transformer, a bunch of caps, and a rectifier. Going with a standard laminated core transformer would mean this power supply would be huge and heavy, but once again eBay comes to the rescue with a small, 150 Watt toroidal transformer. The largest output on the transformer was two 24 V outputs. Combining those outputs gets [Limpkin] to 48V AC, or 68V peak to peak. A full wave voltage doubler with two caps and two diodes gives [Limpkin] the 136V DC that will power the tubes.

Combine the high voltage circuit with a 9V AC tap, a small bridge rectifier, and a few more caps, and [Limpkin] had a supply that would power the tubes and the rest of the electronics in his multiple Nixie tube project. A few passes with a CNC mill gave the power supply a nice case topped off with a foreboding toroidal transformer ready to power a beautiful neon project.

A Field Guide to the North American Utility Pole

We live under the umbrella of an intricate and fascinating web of infrastructure that enables every aspect of modern technology. But how often do we really look at it? I’ve been intrigued by utility poles for years, and I’ve picked up a thing or two that I’d like to share. Bear in mind these are just my observations from the ground in my area; I’m sure utility professionals will have better information, and regional practices will no doubt lead to very different equipment arrangements. But here’s a little of what I’ve picked up over my years as a pole geek.

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