60 Watt USB Soldering Iron Does It With Type-C

Some time back we ran a post on those cheap USB soldering irons which appeared to be surprisingly capable considering they were really under powered, literally. But USB Type-C is slated to change that. Although it has been around for a while, we are only now beginning to see USB-C capable devices and chargers gain traction. USB-C chargers featuring the USB-PD option (for power delivery) can act as high power sources allowing fast charging of laptops, phones and other devices capable of negotiating the higher currents and voltages it is capable of sourcing. [Julien Goodwin] shows us how he built a USB-C powered soldering iron that doesn’t suck.

He is able to drive a regular Hakko iron at 20 V and 3 Amps, providing it with 60 W of input power from a USB-C charger. The Hakko is rated for 24 V operating voltage, so it is running about 16% lower power voltage. But even so, 60 W is plenty for most cases. The USB-C specification allows up to 5 A of current output in special cases, so there’s almost 100 W available when using this capability.

It all started while he was trying to consolidate his power brick collection for his various computers in order to reduce the many types and configurations of plugs. Looking around, he stumbled on the USB-PD protocol. After doing his homework, he decided to build a USB Type-C charger board with the PD feature based on the TI TPS65986 chip – a very capable USB Type-C and USB PD Controller and Power Switch. The TI chip is a BGA package, so he had to outsource board assembly, and with day job work constantly getting in the way, it took a fair bit of time before he could finally test it. Luckily, none of the magic smoke escaped from the board and it worked flawlessly the first time around. Here is his deck of slides about USB-C & USB-PD [PDF] that he presented at linux.conf.au 2017 Open Hardware Miniconf early this year. It provides a nice insight to this standard, including a look at the schematic for his driver board.

Being such a versatile system, we are likely to see USB-C being used in more devices in the future. Which means we ought to see high power USB Soldering Irons appearing soon. But at the moment, there is a bit of a “power” struggle between USB-C and Qualcomm’s competing “Quick Charge” (QC) technology. It’s a bit like VHS and Betamax, and this time we are hoping the better technology wins.

40 thoughts on “60 Watt USB Soldering Iron Does It With Type-C

  1. “It’s a bit like VHS and Betamax, and this time we are hoping the better technology wins”

    History has shown us that being “better” mostly means being more expensive… considering that the masses will go for the cheap stuff, this can only mean that the masses will go for the inferior product. But that would only be the case if the user has a choice. Does the user have a choice here?!?!?

    1. According to Wikipedia, this was only one factor in VHS’s win. It was also helped by having double the recording time of Betamax when it first came out (both formats later introduced modes to squeeze tracks together for more recording time at the expense of quality) and the fact that JVC would liscence VHS to any manufacturer willing to produce it right when it first came out, whereas Sony only started liscencing to other manufacturers in the 80s

      1. The actual killer app for VHS turned out to be American football. Both VHS and Beta targeted 2 hour play times, but it was a JVC exec who realized that you would need 3+ hours to time shift a football game, a potentially huge market. So the engineers did the track-squeezing thing which definitely impacted quality, but made it possible to time shift football games. Of course, it also cut the cost in half for your video archive collection if you didn’t care about the quality so much. Sony remained snotty about this “quality compromise” for a few years before realizing how much ground they were losing, and by the time they did the same trick themselves it was really too late to catch up.

    2. The question is how do you define “better”? Better is a subjective term. Two different people can have a different opinion of what’s better. For many people what’s “good enough” for what they wish to accomplish and cheaper is “better”.

      The real question here, is why do we need a USB powered soldering iron? There exist battery powered soldering irons and there are butane powered soldering irons. Therefore, If you need portability, other solutions already exist. If you don’t need portability, why not just use a regular iron that plugs into a wall outlet. The USB soldering iron is solution in search of a problem.

      1. Can’t really agree, here. USB A power packs are everywhere and downright cheap and easy to use and charge, and USB C power packs won’t be far behind. One power pack that can charge pretty much anything that someone uses on a regular basis is very attractive, and I can soon see the advent of ‘Y’ adapters that allow having multiple packs in parallel for added power.

        1. USB C battery packs will be difficult, and nowhere near as cheap and ubiquitous as the current ones, that are just a 3.7V lithium and a boost convertor for 500mA.

          USB C power requires variable voltage, and quite a bit of current. Not as cheap and simple as USB 2.0.

          As far as a source of power that’s everywhere, you can’t go wrong with a mains socket. Plenty of soldering irons for those. For the rare time you need to do soldering without mains electricity, there’s already butane, 12v, and battery irons. What were you planning to solder anyway? Why’d you bring this electronic device out into the country just to solder it, when there’s nowhere to plug it in? Or do you always carry your soldering iron + battery pack when you leave the house?,

  2. Now that’s a good idea! I’ve hacked together USB soldering stuff to use with my notebook computers before but that was primitive (no handshaking relying on computers putting out more power than needed by the specs.) and low powered (5V @ 500mA -> 2.5W).

  3. Even though 20V is nominally part of the spec, I’ve not come across any Qualcomm Quick Charge power sources that support anything above 12V, and back in August Qualcomm apparently told The Wirecutter that that there were no adapters which could supply 20V and no devices that charged at anything above 9V. Everyone seems to have standardised on USB-C for higher power applications like charging laptops.

    1. As someone who’s currently working on a similar device to the one in the article, I can with great confidence say that yes, you can. In fact, the PD communications take place on a completely different wire from the USB 2.0/3.1 communication channels, so there couldn’t even be any data collisions.

  4. “He is able to drive a regular Hakko iron at 20 V and 3 Amps, providing it with 60 W of input power from a USB-C charger. The Hakko is rated for 24 V operating voltage, so it is running about 16% lower power. ”

    With 24V this gives I=24/6.66=3.6A and P=24*3.6=86W
    60/86=0.7, so shouldn’t that be 30% lower power?

  5. Having never heard of QuickCharge, so looked it up. It sounds like, under pressure from Google, the QC4 spec is USB-PD compliant. That would make QuickCharge more of a rebrand than a competitor. Or am I misunderstanding something here?

    1. Chronologically we went from USB putting out 0.5A, then over a few years this went up to 2A. Qualcomm said “hey this isn’t fast enough” and upped the voltage to increase charging speed in phones with its SoCs. After a few generations of qualcomm’s proprietary tech (and with other manufacturers joining the bandwagon with their own versions, don’t get me started on VOOC or Dash or TurboPower) the USB Implementers Forum released the Power Delivery standard which is better in just about every respect (free, open, safer, more capable).

    2. It is (theoretically) the best of both worlds. Basically try to use USB-PD to negotiate voltage, but if that fails, try QC. A number of USB-C phones on the market already support both USB-PD and QC3. QC4 officially integrates the two.

  6. > USB-C powered soldering iron that doesn’t suck.

    nah, it still sucks, he used a model with ~30 year old soldering tip design.
    What is this? 900M-T-I? great .. for engraving wood, or soldering speaker wires. This tip is the embodiment of bad equipment, and by some cosmic(or Chinese) joke default tip you get on shit chinese hakko 936 clones ;-)

    This is the tip you will see being used by a newbie/noob repeatig over and over how difficult this whole soldering business is, or in old timers soldering iron while he laments SMD and mumbles something about wire-wrap and lawns.

    Cmon people, HAKKO T12 is a thing, clones start at ~$4, genuine ones ~$15. Google/ebay it.

    1. Yes, if I was to actually use this replacing the tip with a nice genuine chisel would be the first improvement after putting the lot in a case.

      As I mention in the full blog post, I have nicer irons in the labs, this was more just an evil idea someone suggested that I decided to try.

    2. HAKKO T12 are still just resistive heaters though, aren’t they?

      I’m waiting for the cheap clone 13.56 MHz gear to come out (Hakko FX-100, for example, uses this tech, as does Metcal)

  7. You know what I am waiting for? USB-C legacy adapter cables or tips. Imagine a tip that has a small microcontroller which commands the appropriate voltage, IE laptop barrel tips that set the 15 or 20 volt level. Add a couple LEDs for status, say green for ready and red if something is wrong, IE the USB-C source isn’t high enough wattage or doesn’t support the requested voltage.

    1. this is a great idea! but… it means buying a big beefy usb-c plug pack. Most people might only have one laptop; maybe two or three in a family (but then you aren’t going to share one power supply) I can see this being great for places like hackerspaces or offices (i work in a operations centre and keep about 20 different laptop power supplies in stock).

      possibly a similar idea would be a box with multi inputs and multi outputs and a programmable dc-dc converter inside.
      The issue you have is a user trying to power a 150w laptop with a 60w power brick. You’d need to trust that the user has read the input power max correctly.

  8. “But at the moment, there is a bit of a “power” struggle between USB-C and Qualcomm’s competing “Quick Charge” (QC) technology.”
    Uhm. Doesn’t Quallcom QC run over USB in general? I sounds just like “There’s a competition between TCP/IP and SSL”

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