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.
The price of commercially made solar panels on eBay is around $1 per watt and have been for a few years, but the price of individual solar cells are likewise at a low price per watt, around $0.48. Looking at those prices, it’s tempting to say that it’d be cheaper to just buy the solar cells and put together your own panels. But is it? Simply adding up all the costs might seem like a good way to tell, but you’d need to make a panel to really see what works and what doesn’t.
The cost of his DIY panel rose quickly. To make a somewhat comparable panel he needed to buy aluminum U-channels, clear epoxy resin, and more. Shown here is the breakdown of his costs.
His commercial 100 watt solar panel would cost him $103 today (87.90€). Compare that to his $164 DIY panel. Also, his DIY one likely won’t weather as well as the commercial one and may not handle high temperatures as well either. You can see the results of his testing in the video below, along with all his construction steps.
Every scrap of power is precious when it comes to power harvesting, and working with such designs usually means getting cozy with a microcontroller’s low-power tricks and sleep modes. But in the case of the Ultra Low Power Energy Harvester design by [bobricius], the attached microcontroller doesn’t need to worry about managing power at all — as long as it can finish its job fast enough.
The idea is to use solar energy to fill a capacitor, then turn on the microcontroller and let it run normally until the power runs out. As a result, a microcontroller may only have a runtime in the range of dozens of microseconds, but that’s just fine if it’s enough time to, for example, read a sensor and transmit a packet. In early tests, [bobricius] was able to reliably transmit a 16-bit value wirelessly every 30 minutes using a small array of photodiodes as the power supply. That’s the other interesting thing; [bobricius] uses an array of BPW34 photodiodes to gather solar power. The datasheet describes them as silicon photodiodes, but they can be effectively used as tiny plastic-enclosed solar cells. They are readily available and can be arranged in a variety of configurations, while also being fairly durable.
Charging a capacitor then running a load for a short amount of time is one of the simplest ways to manage solar energy, and it requires no unusual components or fancy charge controllers. As long as the load doesn’t mind a short runtime, it can be an effective way to turn even indoor light into a figuratively free power source.
The SPINES (Self-Powered IoT Node for Environmental Sensing) Mote is a wireless IoT environmental sensor, but don’t let the neatly packed single PCB fool you into thinking it’s not hackable. [Macro Yau] specifically designed SPINES to be highly modular in order to make designing an energy harvesting sensor node an easier task. The way [Macro] sees it, there are two big hurdles to development: one is the energy harvesting itself, and the other is the software required to manage the use of every precious joule of that harvested energy.
[Macro] designed the single board SPINES Mote in a way that the energy harvesting portion can be used independently, and easily integrated into other designs. In addition, an Arduino library is being developed to make it easy for the power management to be done behind the scenes, allowing a developer to concentrate on the application itself. A solar-powered wireless sensor node is one thing, but helping people get their ideas up and running faster in the process is wonderful to see.
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