Running a server completely off solar power seems like it would be a relatively easy thing to do: throw up a couple of panels, tack on a charge controller and a beefy battery, and away you go. But the reality is somewhat different. Most of us hackers are operating on a relatively limited budget and probably don’t have access to the kind of property you need to put out big panels; both pretty crippling limitations. Doing solar on a small-scale is hard, and unless you really plan ahead your setup will probably be knocked out on its first cloudy day.
So when [Kris de Decker] wanted to create a solar-powered version of his site “Low-tech Magazine”, he went all in. Every element of the site and the hardware it runs on was investigated for potential power savings, and luckily for us, the entire process was written up in meticulous detail (non-solar version here). The server still does go down from time to time if the weather is particularly poor, but in general it maintains about 90% uptime in Barcelona, Spain.
The solar side of the equation is fairly simple. There’s a 50 watt photovoltaic panel charging a 12V 7Ah lead-acid battery though a 20A charge controller. With an average of 4 to 6 hours of sunlight a day, the panel generates 300 Wh of electricity in the best case scenario; which needs to be split between charging the battery and running the server itself.
As for the server, [Kris] chose the Olimex Olinuxino A20 Lime 2 in part because of it being open source hardware, but also because it’s very energy-efficient and includes a AXP209 power management chip. Depending on processor load, the Olimex board draws between 1 and 2.5 watts of power, which combined with charging losses and such means the system can run through two days of cloudy weather before giving up the ghost. A second battery might be added in the future to help improve the run time during low-light conditions, but for now its been working pretty well.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole project are the lengths to which the website itself was optimized to keep resource utilization as low as possible. Images are compressed using dithering to greatly reduce their file sizes, and the site eschews modern design in favor of a much less processor intensive static layout. There’s even a battery capacity display integrated into the page through some clever use of CSS. Even if you aren’t looking to set up your own sun worshiping website, there are tips here for building efficient web pages that could absolutely be put to use in other projects.
When featuring cool hacks repurposing one thing for something else, we prefer to focus on what we could get our hands on and replicate for ourselves. Not this one, though, as nobody else has the misfortune of being responsible for 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) of radioactive contaminated land like the government of Ukraine. Trying to make the best of what they have, they’ve just launched a pilot program working to put up solar power farms inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
This is sure to invite some jokes in the comments section, but the idea has merit. Thirty years of weather has eroded the worst aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion. That area is no longer immediately lethal and people have been making short visits. Spanning from safety inspectors, to scientists, to curious adventurers with questionable judgement making television shows. Supposedly, by following rules on what not to do, it’s possible to keep radiation exposure of a short visit down to the level experienced by frequent fliers. But that’s still too much radiation for long-term stay. That means no homes, office parks, or factories. No agriculture either, as plants and animals grown in the area should not be eaten.
Well, next to the defunct power plant is the electric distribution infrastructure it used to feed into, and photovoltaic power generation requires little human oversight. Some maintenance will be required, but hopefully someone has worked out how to keep maintenance workers’ cumulative exposure to a minimum. And if this idea pans out, clean renewable energy would start flowing from the site of one of the worst ecological disasters of our era. That makes it a worthwhile hack on a grand scale.
It seems kind of obvious when you think about it: why not just stick a solar panel on a quadcopter so it can fly on solar power? Unfortunately, physics is a cruel mistress, and it gets a bit more complex when you look at problems like weight to power ratios, panel efficiency, and similar tedious technical details. This group of National University of Singapore students has gone some way to overcome these technical issues, though: they just built a drone that is powered from solar power alone, with no batteries or other power source.
Their creation is a custom-built quadcopter made with carbon fiber that weighs just 2.6kg (about 5.7lbs), but which has about 4 square meters (about 43 square feet) of solar panels. By testing and hand-selecting the panels with the best efficiency, they were able to generate enough power to drive the four rotors, and have managed to achieve altitudes of up to 10 meters. The students have been working on prototypes of this since 2012, when their first version could only generate 45% of the power needed for flight. So, reaching 100% of flight power in the demo shown below is a significant step.
The Tiny Solar Energy Module (TSEM) by [Jasper Sikken] is not only physically tiny at one-inch square, but it is all about gathering tiny amounts of solar energy — amounts too small to be useful in a conventional sense — and getting meaningful work done, like charging a battery for later use. Elements that make this board easy to integrate into other projects include castellated vias, 1.8 V and 3.3 V regulated outputs that are active when the connected battery has a useful charge, and a low battery warning that informs the user of impending shutdown when the battery runs low. The two surface-mount solar cells included on the tiny board are capable of harvesting even indoor light, but the board also has connection points for using larger external solar cells if needed.
The Seebeck effect (part of the broader thermoelectric effect) is how a difference in temperature can be directly converted into a voltage, and it is the operating principle behind things like thermocouples and Peltier junctions. Harnessing this effect in an effort to wrangle a useful electrical current out of the environment has led to some interesting ideas, like the Lily Power Pods by [Josh Starnes].
What’s interesting about this particular design is that the artistic angle crosses over with functionality. Electrically speaking, the pods have one side of the thermoelectric generator heated by the sun while the other is cooled by being submerged in water, and the temperature differential creates a measurable voltage. [Josh] designed the pods to resemble flowers, with foil petals that help direct sunlight towards the blackened “hot side” of the thermoelectric generator while water takes care of the cool side.
Are foil petals the best way to gather and direct sunlight? They are not, but the idea is to have the pods look like something other than the floating hunks of machinery that they are. Since the pods must float in water and be exposed to sunlight, they will as a result have high visibility. [Josh] seems to feel that it’s important that they not be an eyesore. After all, a less efficient generator that doesn’t overstay its welcome still generates more power than one that has figuratively been handed its hat and told to move along.
[Mile]’s PTPM Energy Scavenger takes the scavenging idea seriously and is designed to gather not only solar power but also energy from temperature differentials, vibrations, and magnetic induction. The idea is to make wireless sensor nodes that can be self-powered and require minimal maintenance. There’s more to the idea than simply doing away with batteries; if the devices are rugged and don’t need maintenance, they can be installed in locations that would otherwise be impractical or awkward. [Mile] says that goal is to reduce the most costly part of any supply chain: human labor.
The prototype is working well with solar energy and supercapacitors for energy storage, but [Mile] sees potential in harvesting other sources, such as piezoelectric energy by mounting the units to active machinery. With a selectable output voltage, optional battery for longer-term storage, and a reference design complete with enclosure, the PPTM Energy Scavenger aims to provide a robust power solution for wireless sensor platforms.
A few years ago, [Lukas Fässler] needed a solar charge controller and made his own, which he has been improving ever since. The design is now mature, and the High Efficiency MPPT Solar Charger is full of features like data logging, boasts a 97% efficiency over a range of 1 to 75 Watts, and can be used as a standalone unit or incorporated as a module into other systems. One thing that became clear to [Lukas] during the process was that a highly efficient, feature-rich, open-sourced hardware solution for charge controllers just didn’t exist, at least not with the features he had in mind.
Data logging and high efficiency are important for a charge controller, because batteries vary in their characteristics as they recharge and the power generated from things like solar panels varies under different conditions and loads. An MPPT (Maximum Point Power Tracking) charger is a smart unit optimized to handle all these changing conditions for maximum efficiency. We went into some detail on MPPT in the past, and after three years in development creating a modular and configurable design, [Lukas] hopes no one will have to re-invent the wheel when it comes to charge controllers.
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