“Who is John Galt?” Finally Answered

For those who haven’t read [Ayn Rand’s] philosophical tome Atlas Shrugged, there’s a pretty cool piece of engineering stuffed in between the 100-page-long monologues. Although fictional, a character manages to harness atmospheric static electricity and convert it into kinetic energy and (spoilers!) revolutionize the world. Harnessing atmospheric static electricity isn’t just something for fanciful works of fiction, though. It’s a real-world phenomenon and it’s actually possible to build this motor.

who-is-john-galt-thumbAs [Richard Feynman] showed, there is an exploitable electrical potential gradient in the atmosphere. By suspending a tall wire in the air, it is possible to obtain voltages in the tens of thousands of volts. In this particular demonstration, a hexacopter is used to suspend a wire with a set of needles on the end. The needles help facilitate the flow of electrons into the atmosphere, driving a current that spins the corona motor at the bottom of the wire.

There’s not much torque or power generated, but the proof of concept is very interesting to see. Of course, the higher you can go the more voltage is available to you, so maybe future devices such as this could exploit atmospheric electricity to go beyond a demonstration and do useful work. We’ve actually featured the motor that was used in this demonstration before, though, so if you’re curious as to how a corona motor works you should head over there.

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Adding a Battery Gauge to a Project With Zero Parts

The typical way of doing a low battery detector is throwing a comparator in the circuit, setting it to measure a certain threshold voltage, and sending that signal off to a microcontroller or other circuit to notify someone the battery is going dead. [Josh] has a simpler way using an 8-bit AVR and zero other parts.

The chip [Josh] is using is the ATtiny84. The ADC in this chip is usually used to measure an unknown voltage against a reference voltage. The trick [Josh] is using is to do this in reverse: The internal 1.1 Volt reference voltage is measured against an unknown scale, namely the input voltage.

The value provided by the ADC on the chip will always be Vin times 1024 over the reference voltage. Since Vin will be 1.1 V in this case, the ADC value is known, it’s only a matter of doing some 6th grade algebra to determine the value of the input voltage.

[Josh] put together a small demonstration where the chip blinks out the number of volts its receiving from a bench power supply. By blinking a LED, it can blink out the current value of VCC as integers, but by using this technique you should be able to get a fairly fine-grained reading of what VCC actually is. Video below.

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Afroman Demonstrates Boost Converters

If you need to regulate your power input down to a reasonable voltage for a project, you reach for a switching regulator, or failing that, an inefficient linear regulator. What if you need to boost the voltage inside a project? It’s boost converter time, and Afrotechmods is here to show you how they work.

In its simplest form, a boost converter can be built from only an inductor, a diode, a capacitor, and a transistor. By switching the transistor on and off with varying duty cycles, energy is stored in the inductor, and then sent straight to the capacitor. Calculating the values for the duty cycle, frequency, inductor, and the other various parts of a boost converter means a whole bunch of math, but following the recommended layout in the datasheets for boost and switching converters is generally good enough.


[Afroman]’s example circuit for this tutorial is a simple boost converter built around an LT1370 switching regulator. In addition to that there’s also a small regulator, diode, a few big caps and resistors, and a pot for the feedback pin. This is all you need to build a simple boost converter, and the pot tied to the feedback pin varies the duty cycle of the regulator, changing the output voltage.

It’s an extremely efficient way to boost voltage, measured by [Afroman] at over 80%. It’s also exceptionally easy to build, with just a handful of parts soldered directly onto a piece of perfboard.

Video below.

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AC vs DC human pain test


Ever wondered just how much being zapped by electricity hurts? Curious if AC is worse than DC? Want to know just how many volts a human body can take? Although many people might cringe at the shear thought of it, [Mehdi Sadaghdar] is an electrical engineer who decided to turn himself into a human guinea pig and find out.

[Mehdi] measured the electrical resistance of his dry skin, his wet skin, and finally his tongue.  He found that his tongue had the least resistance, so it would feel the electricity at much lower levels. Using a bench power supply, he then used his tongue as a testing ground – slowly turning the voltage up and up until he could no longer take the pain. He tested the levels at which: he could first feel the electricity, when it began to get annoying, when it felt like torture, and when he could no longer stand the pain. He tried both AC and DC, and reports that AC is much worse.

Check out the informative, yet admittedly hilarious at times, video after the break. [Mehdi] seems like one awesome engineer! Remember – don’t try this at home.

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From the readers: low battery cutoff solutions

We got a lot of really great feedback about low battery cutoff options in the comments section of Monday’s replacement battery post. To refresh your memory, some power tool batteries were replaced by Lithium Polymer units which can be damaged if drained too low before recharging. We had thought that many Lithium cells had cutoff circuitry these days. The consensus is that these batteries didn’t because they’re for RC applications where weight is an issue. But we did get a ton of people sending in commercially available drop-in solutions, mostly from RC hobby outlets, so search around for those if you’re interested.

[Christopher] sent us a link to the cutoff circuit he built for his bike light. You can see the schematic for it above (direct link). He sourced an ATtiny45 to drive a MOSFET which disconnects the battery when it gets too low. This would be easy to adapt to other uses, but note that there’s a voltage regulator involved as well as a few other passives… not a difficult solution but also not all that simple.

This same concept can be adapted. A few commentors mentioned using a transistor (or MOSFET) with the base driven by a voltage divider including a zener diode. This way the voltage rating of the diode would effectively shut off the gate when that threshold was reached.

We also enjoyed reading about [Bill’s] human-controlled cutoff circuit. It also uses a zener diode, but this time in series with a resistor and and LED patched into the trigger of the tool. The LED will shine brightly when the battery is in good shape. It will dim near the end, and fail to light when the critical limit has been reached. Just make sure you’re paying attention and you’re in good shape.

Light bulb, diode, and capacitor step mains down to 12V DC

[Todd Harrison] needed a way to run a 12 volt PC fan from mains voltage. Well, we think he really just needed something to keep him occupied on a Sunday, but that’s beside the point. He shows us how he did this in a non-traditional way by using the resistive load of an incandescent light bulb, a diode, and a capacitor to convert voltage to what he needed. You can read his article, or settle in for the thirty-five minute video after the break where he explains his circuit.

The concept here is fairly simple. The diode acts as a half-wave rectifier by preventing the negative trough of the alternating current from passing into his circuit. The positive peaks of the electricity travel through the light bulb, which knocks down the voltage to a usable level. Finally, the capacitor fills the gaps where the negative current of the AC used to be, providing direct current to the fan. It’s easy to follow but the we needed some help with the math for calculating the correct lightbulb to use to get our desired output current.

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Automotive battery voltage monitor


[Rajendra’s] car had just about all the bells, whistles, and gauges he could dream of, but he thought it was missing one important item. In an age where cars are heavily reliant on intricate electrical systems, he felt that he should have some way of monitoring the car’s battery and charging system.

To keep tabs on his car’s electrical system, he built a simple device that allows him to monitor the battery’s instantaneous voltage when the car is powered off, as well as the charging voltage across the battery when the car is running. A PIC16F1827 runs the show, using a simple voltage divider network to step the input voltage down to an acceptable level for use with the PIC’s A/D conversion channel. The resultant measurements are output to a four digit 7 segment display, mounted on the front of the device.

He says that the voltage monitor works quite well, and we’re sure he feels a lot better about the health of his car’s charging system. For anyone interested in keeping closer tabs on their car, he has a circuit diagram as well as code available on his site.