The Science Behind Lithium Cell Characteristics and Safety

To describe the constraints on developing consumer battery technology as ‘challenging’ is an enormous understatement. The ideal rechargeable battery has conflicting properties – it has to store large amounts of energy, safely release or absorb large amounts of it on demand, and must be unable to release that energy upon failure. It also has to be cheap, nontoxic, lightweight, and scalable.

As a result, consumer battery technologies represent a compromise between competing goals. Modern rechargeable lithium batteries are no exception, although overall they are a marvel of engineering. Mobile technology would not be anywhere near as good as it is today without them. We’re not saying you cannot have cellphones based on lead-acid batteries (in fact the Motorola 2600 ‘Bag Phone’ was one), but you had better have large pockets. Also a stout belt or… some type of harness? It turns out lead is heavy.

The Motorola 2600 ‘bag phone’, with a lead-acid battery. Image CC-BY-SA 3.0 source: Trent021

Rechargeable lithium cells have evolved tremendously over the years since their commercial release in 1991. Early on in their development, small grains plated with lithium metal were used, which had several disadvantages including loss of cell capacity over time, internal short circuits, and fairly high levels of heat generation. To solve these problems, there were two main approaches: the use of polymer electrolytes, and the use of graphite electrodes to contain the lithium ions rather than use lithium metal. From these two approaches, lithium-ion (Li-ion) and lithium-polymer (Li-Po) cells were developed (Vincent, 2009, p. 163). Since then, many different chemistries have been developed.

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Chest of Drawers Stores Audio Memories

Some people collect stamps, some collect barbed wire, and some people even collect little bits of silicon and plastic. But the charmingly named [videoschmideo] collects memories, mostly of his travels around the world with his wife. Trinkets and treasures are easy to keep track of, but he found that storing the audio clips he collects a bit more challenging. Until he built this audio memory chest, that is.

Granted, you might not be a collector of something as intangible as audio files, and even if you are, it seems like Google Drive or Dropbox might be the more sensible place to store them. But the sensible way isn’t always the best way, and we really like this idea. Starting with what looks like an old card catalog file — hands up if you’ve ever greedily eyed a defunct card catalog in a library and wondered if it would fit in your shop for parts storage — [videoschmideo] outfitted 16 drawers with sensors to detect when they’re opened. Two of the drawers were replaced by speaker grilles, and an SD card stores all the audio files. When a drawer is opened, a random clip from that memory is played while you look through the seashells, postcards, and what-have-yous. Extra points for using an old-school typewriter for the drawer labels, and for using old card catalog cards for the playlists.

This is a simple idea, but a powerful one, and we really like the execution here. This one manages to simultaneously put us in the mood for some world travel and a trip to a real library.

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A Jet Engine On A Bike. What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

On today’s edition of ‘don’t try this at home,’ we’re transported to Russia to see [Igor Negoda]’s working jet bicycle.

This standard mountain bike comes equipped with a jet engine capable of 18kg of thrust, fixed to the frame under the seat with an adjustable bracket to change it’s angle as needed. A cell phone is zip-tied to the frame and acts as a speedometer — if it works, it’s not stupid — and an engine controller displays thrust, rpm and temperature.  A LiPo battery is the engine’s power source with a separate, smaller battery for the electronics. The bike is virtually overgrown with wires and tubes that feed the engine, including an auxiliary fuel tank where a water bottle normally resides. Where’s the main fuel tank? In [Negoda]’s backpack, of course.

It certainly kicks up a mean dust cloud and makes a heck of a racket but the real question is: how fast does it go? From the looks of the smartphone, 72 km/h, 45 mph, or 18 rods to the hogshead.

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Better Stepping With 8-Bit Micros

The electronics for motion control systems, routers, and 3D printers are split into two camps. The first is 8-bit microcontrollers, usually AVRs, and are regarded as being slower and incapable of cool acceleration features. The second camp consists of 32-bit microcontrollers, and these are able to drive a lot of steppers very quickly and very smoothly. While 32-bit micros are obviously the future, there are a few very clever people squeezing the last drops out of 8-bit platforms. That’s what the Buildbotics team did with their ATxmega chip — they’re using a clever application of DMA as counters to drive steppers.

The usual way of driving steppers quickly with an ATMega or other 8-bit microcontroller is abusing the hardware timers. It’s quick, but there is a downside. It takes time for these timers to start and stop, and if you’re doing it two hundred times per second with four stepper motors, that clock jitter will ruin your CNC machine. The solution is to use a DMA channel to count down, with each count sending out a pulse to a stepper. It’s a clever abuse of the hardware, and the only drawback is the micro can’t send more than 2¹⁶ pulses per any 5ms period. That’s not really an issue because that would mean some very, very fast acceleration.

The Buildbotics team currently has a Kickstarter running for their four-axis CNC controller using this technique. It’s designed for Taig mills, 6040 routers, K40 lasers, and other various homebrew robots. It’s an interesting solution to the apparent end of the of the age of 8-bit microcontrollers in CNC machines and certainly worth checking out.

Building a Working Game of Tetris in Conway’s Game of Life

If you haven’t been following along with Conway’s Game of Life, it’s come a long way from the mathematical puzzle published in Scientific American in 1970. Over the years, mathematicians have discovered a wide array of constructs that operate within Life’s rules, including many that can be leveraged to perform programming functions — logic gates, latches, multiplexers, and so on. Some of these creations have gotten rather huge and complicated, at least in terms of Life cells. For instance, the OTCA metapixel is comprised of 64,691 cells and has the ability to mimic any cellular automata found in Life.

A group of hackers has used OTCA metapixels to create a Tetris game out of Life elements. The game features all 7 shapes as well as the the movement, rotation, and drops one would expect. You can even preview the next piece. The game is the creation of many people who worked on individual parts of the larger program. They built a RISC computer out of Game of Life elements, as well as am assembler and compiler for it, with the OTCA metapixels doing the heavy lifting. (The image at the top of the post is the program’s data synchronizer.

Check out the project’s source code on GitHub, and use this interpreter. Set the RAM to 3-32 and hit run.

For a couple of other examples of Life creations, check out the Game of Life clock and music synthesized from Life automata we published earlier.

Hackaday Links: September 17, 2017


Mergers and acquisitions? Not this time. Lattice Semiconductor would have been bought by Canyon Bridge — a private equity firm backed by the Chinese government — for $1.3B. This deal was shut down by the US government because of national security concerns.

[Jan] is the Internet’s expert in doing synths on single chips, and now he has something pretty cool. It’s a breadboard synth with MIDI and CV input. Basically, what we’re looking at is [Jan]’s CVS-01 chip for a DCO, DCF, and DCA), a KL5 chip for an LFO, and an envelope chip. Tie everything together with a two-octave captouch keyboard, and you have a complete synthesizer on a breadboard.

As an aside relating to the above, does anyone know what the cool kids are using for a CV/Gate keyboard controller these days? Modular synths are making a comeback, but it looks like everyone is running a MIDI keyboard into a MIDI-CV converter. It seems like there should be a –simple, cheap– controller with quarter-inch jacks labeled CV and Gate. Any suggestions?

World leaders are tweeting. The Canadian PM is awesome and likes Dark Castle.

Way back in July, Square, the ‘POS terminal on an iPad’ company posted some data on Twitter. Apparently, fidget spinner sales peaked during the last week of May, and were declining through the first few weeks of summer. Is this proof the fidget spinner fad was dead by August? I have an alternate hypothesis: fidget spinner sales are tied to middle schoolers, and sales started dropping at the beginning of summer vacation. We need more data, so if some of you could retweet this, that would be awesome.

Remember [Peter Sripol], the guy building an ultralight in his basement? This is going to be a five- or six-part video build log, and part three came out this week. This video features the installation of the control surfaces, the application of turnbuckles, and hardware that is far too expensive for what it actually is.

Hackaday Prize Entry: You Can Tune A Guitar, But Can You Reference REO Speedwagon?

Just for a second, let’s perform a little engineering-based thought experiment. Let’s design a guitar tuner. First up, you’ll need a 1/4″ input, and some op-amps to get that signal into a microcontroller. In the microcontroller, you’re going to be doing some FFT. If you’re really fancy, you’ll have some lookup tables and an interface to switch between A440, maybe A430, and if you’re a huge nerd, C256. The interface is simple enough — just use a seven-segment display and a few LEDs to tell the user what note they’re on and how on-pitch they are. All in all, the design isn’t that hard.

Now let’s design a tuner for blind musicians. This makes things a bit more interesting. That LED interface isn’t going to work, and you’ve got to figure out a better way of telling the musician they’re on-pitch. This is the idea of [Pepijn]’s Accessible Guitar Tuner. It’s a finalist in The Hackaday Prize Assistive Technology round, and a really interesting problem to solve.

Most of [Pepijn]’s tuner is what you would expect — microcontrollers and FFT. The microcontroller is an ATMega, which is sufficient enough for a simple guitar tuner. The real trick here is the interface. [Pepijn] modulating the input from the guitar against a reference frequency. The difference between the guitar and this reference frequency is then turned into clicks and played through headphones. Fewer clicks mean the guitar is closer to being in tune.

This is one of those projects that’s a perfect fit for the Hackaday Prize Assistive Technology round. It’s an extremely simple problem to define, somewhat easy to build, and very useful. That doesn’t mean [Pepijn] isn’t having problems — he’s having a lot of trouble with the signal levels from a guitar. He’s looking for some help, so if you have some insights in reading signals that range from tiny piezos to active humbuckers, give him a few words of advice.