Weather Station Is A Tutorial in Low Power Design

Building your own weather station is a fun project in itself, but building it to be self-sufficient and off-grid adds another set of challenges to the mix. You’ll need a battery and a solar panel to power the station, which means adding at least a regulator and charge controller to your build. If the panel and battery are small, you’ll also need to make some power-saving tweaks to the code as well. (Google Translate from Italian) The tricks that [Danilo Larizza] uses in his build are useful for more than just weather stations though, they’ll be perfect for anyone trying to optimize their off-grid projects for battery and solar panel size.

When it comes to power conservation, the low-hanging fruit is plucked first. [Danilo] set the measurement intervals to as long as possible and put the microcontroller (a NodeMCU) to sleep in between. Removing the power from the sensors when the microcontroller was asleep was another easy step, but the device was still crashing overnight. Then he turned to a hardware solution and added a more efficient battery charger to the setup, which saved even more power. This is all the more impressive because the station communicates via WiFi which is notoriously difficult to run in low-power applications.

Besides the low power optimizations, the weather station itself is interesting for its relative simplicity. It could be built with things most of us have knocking around. Best of all, [Danilo] published the source code on his site, so most of the hard work has been done already. If you’re thinking he seems a little familiar, it’s because we’ve featured some of his projects before, like his cheap WiFi extender antenna and his homemade hybrid tube amplifier.

The Bells! The Bells! One Battery since 1840

It is good advice to change batteries in your fire alarms at least once a year. Even our low-power LCD calculators need new batteries from time to time. But at the University of Oxford, they have an electric bell that has been ringing essentially non-stop on one set of batteries for about 178 years! Is the energy crisis solved then? Perhaps not. The bells require a high voltage but very little current and the pair of batteries — piles in the parlance of 1840 — have kept the charge flowing for about 10 billion rings. As you can see in the video below, though, the ringing isn’t very vigorous.

How does it work? When you think of converting electrical power to mechanical motion you probably think of a motor, even though there are plenty of other transducers like speakers, muscle wires, and solenoids. Arguably the first device was electrostatic bells that were invented by a Scot named [Andrew Gordon] around 1742. [Ben Franklin] made them famous, though, so they are often called Franklin bells.

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Banksy’s Barely Believable Batteries

Nearly a decade ago my friend [Dru] gave me an unforgettable tour late at night of Stokes Croft, the inner suburb of Bristol known at the time for its counterculture and artistic scene. It’s a place dominated by building-sized graffiti and murals, and it has a particular association with the Bristolian street artist [Banksy]. If you’ve not seen a Banksy in the wild, the place to do it is by Bristol Saturday night street lighting to the sound of passing revelers and traffic on the A38.

[Banksy] is famous aside from his anonymity, for his pranks upon the art world. The (real) elephant in the room or the Dismalland theme park are his stock in trade, and you may have seen another prank of his in the news in the last day. One of his paintings, the 2006 Girl With A Balloon sold at auction for over a million quid, and as the gavel fell a hidden shredder in the picture frame sprang into life and partially shredded the canvas. The report suggests that a number of [Banksy]’s associates were present at the event, and that one of them was detained with a device that might have been a remote control trigger for the shredder. The quote from Sotheby’s Europe head of Contemporary Art, [Alex Branczik] says it all: “We got Banksy’d”.

The interior of the Banksy shredder frame, taken from a frame of the video.
The interior of the Banksy shredder frame, taken from a frame of the video.

[Banksy]’s cool and all that, but where’s the hack? The artist briefly put up a video with a few details, but aside from showing us a row of craft knife blades and a tantalizing but fleeting glimpse of a few equipment enclosures, it’s short on technical details. We can see what appears to be at least one motor, and those white boxes may be batteries, but that’s it.

This hasn’t stopped some fevered speculation as to how the feat was achieved. A home-made shredder would require a significant amount of readily available power, and since this one has seemingly lain undetected within the frame since 2006, that power source needs to have possessed both exceptional  energy density and retention. We can’t imagine many consumer grade batteries in 2018 being able to retain a charge for twelve years, so how on earth did he do it? Our best guess is that a primary battery was involved, as anyone who has found a neglected Duracell in a box of electronics from their youth will tell you it’s not unknown for decent quality alkaline cells to live well beyond their shelf lives, and other chemistries are specifically designed with that property in mind. Even so, for the cells to power a receiver circuit in standby for so long would certainly tax their capabilities, so it has also been suggested that a concealed switch could have been flipped by a [Banksy] accomplice during the viewing phase to activate the system. There are still so many unanswered questions that it’s certainly piqued our technical curiosity. Sadly we don’t know [Banksy] to ask him how he did it, but we welcome speculation both informed and otherwise in the comments.

Our own [Joe Kim]'s tribute to the work in question.
Our own [Joe Kim]’s tribute to the work in question.
Meanwhile the piece itself lies half shredded and protruding from the base of the frame. On the face of it that’s ruined the painting as an artwork, but of course this is a Banksy. Normal rules seem not to apply, so the notoriety it has received will no doubt mean that its shredded remains are an artwork in themselves, and possibly even one worth more.

Banksy owners worldwide are no doubt now paying a huge amount more attention to the artist’s frames than previously, but Hackaday readers need not worry. Our London Unconference logo and stickers featured a [Joe Kim] homage to the Banksy in question, which we can guarantee does not incorporate an artist’s shredder.

 

Testing Lithium Ceramic Batteries (LCBs)

Affordable solid-state batteries large enough for cell phones and drones have been promised for a long time but seem to always be a few years away from production. In this case, Taiwan based Prologium sent [GreatScott] samples of their Lithium Ceramic batteries (LCBs) to test, and even though they’re not yet commercial products, who are we to refuse a peek at what they’ve been up to? They sent him two types, flexible ones (FLCBs) and higher capacity stiff ones (PLCBs).

Flexible lithium ceramic batteryThe FLCBs were rated at 100 mAh and just 2 C, both small values but still useful for wearables, especially given their flexibility. Doing some destructive testing, he managed to keep an LED lit while flexing the battery and cutting away at it with tin snips.

Switching to the thicker 7.31 Wh PLCB, he measured and weighed it to get an energy density of 258 Wh/L and a specific energy of 118 Wh/kg, only about 2/3rds and 1/2 that of his LiPo and lithium-ion batteries. Repeating the destructive tests with these ones, the LED turned off and smoke appeared while cutting and hammering a nail through, likely due to the shorts caused by the electrically conductive tin snips and nail. But once the snips and nail were moved away, the smoke stopped and the LED lit up again. Overcharging and short-circuiting the batteries both caused the solder connecting the wires to them to melt but nothing else happened. Rapidly discharging through a resistor only resulted in a gradual voltage drop. Clearly, these batteries are much safer than their LiPo and lithium ion counterparts. That safety and their flexibility seem to be their current main selling points should they become available for us hackers. Check out his tests in the video below.

Meanwhile, we’ll have to be content with the occasional tantalizing report from the labs such as this one from MIT of a long battery life and another from one of the co-inventors of the lithium-ion battery which uses a glass electrolyte.

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Non-Newtonian Batteries

Batteries placed in harm’s way need to be protected. A battery placed where a breakdown could endanger a life needs to be protected. Lithium-ion batteries on the bottoms of electric cars are subject to accidental damage and they are bathed in flame-retardant epoxy inside a metal sled. Phone batteries are hidden behind something that will shatter or snap before the battery suffers and warrant inspection. Hoverboard batteries are placed behind cheap plastic, and we have all seen how well that works. Batteries contain chemicals with a high density of energy, so the less exploding they do, the better.

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have added a new ingredient to batteries that makes them armored but from the inside. The ingredient is silica spheres so fine it is safe to call it powder. The effect of this dust is that the electrolyte in every battery will harden like cornstarch/water then go right back to being a liquid. This non-Newtonian fluid works on the principal principle of shear-thickening which, in this case, says that the suspension will become harder as shear force is applied. So, batteries get rock hard when struck, then go back to being batteries when it is safe.

Non-Newtonian fluids are much fun, but we’re also happy to see them put to use. The same principle works in special speed bumps to allow safe drivers to continue driving but jolts speeders. Micromachines can swim in non-Newtonian fluids better than water in some cases.

Power Steering Pump Repurposed for Great Speed

Electric bikes are getting a lot of attention lately. Pretty much anyone can buy a kit online and get a perfectly street legal ride with plenty of range. But if you don’t want to take the kit route, and you’d rather take a tack that will get you noticed more around these parts, take some notes from [Jule553648]’s recent build that definitely isn’t using any parts from a kit.

The motor from the build is an electric power steering pump from a junkyard car. This gets mounted on a one-off rear bike rack and drives the rear tire with help from some gears from a pocket bike gearbox from eBay. A lot of the parts in this build were designed and built using CAD and a machine shop, and the parts for the battery and the power controller were sourced via China to save on cost.

The whole build has a homemade vibe that we find irresistible. The bike can go 35 km/h on level ground without breaking a sweat and has about 40 km of range which is nothing to scoff at. It might even be street legal depending on the wattage of the motor and whether or not you live in Europe (where throttles are generally not allowed on electric bikes). If you’re lacking a machine shop, though, we featured a very well-built kit ebike a while back that you could use as a model to get your feet wet.

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The Quick-Build PowerWall

Elon Musk isn’t just the greatest human being — he’s also a great inventor. He’s invented the reusable rocket, the electric car, and so much more. While those are fantastic achievements, Elon’s greatest invention is probably the PowerWall. The idea of a PowerWall is simple and has been around for years: just get a bunch of batteries and build a giant UPS for your house. Elon brought it to the forefront, though, and DIYers around the world are building their own. Thanks, Elon.

Of course, while the idea of building your own PowerWall is simple, the devil is in the details. How are you going to buy all those batteries? How are you going to connect them together? How do you connect it to your fuse box? It’s a systems integration nightmare, made even more difficult by the fact that lithium cells can catch fire if you do something wrong. [jehugarcia] is building his own PowerWall, and he might have hit upon an interesting solution. He’s built a modular system to store and charge hundreds of 18650 cells. It looks great, and this might be the answer to anyone wanting to build their own PowerWall.

Aside from acquiring hundreds of 18650 cells, the biggest problem in building a PowerWall is simply connecting all the cells together. This can be done with 3D printed battery holders, solder, and bus bars, with a few people experimenting with spot welding wires directly onto the cells. This project might be a better solution: it uses standard plastic battery holders easily acquired from your favorite Chinese retailer and a PCB to turn cells into a battery.

The design of this battery module consists of a PCB with sufficiently wide traces, an XT60 power connector, and a few headers for the balance connector of a charger. This is a seven cell setup, and in contrast to the hundreds of hours that go into making a PowerWall the old fashioned way, these modules can be assembled pretty quickly.

Testing of these modules revealed no explosions, and everything worked as intended. There was a problem, though: when drawing a high load, the terminals of these cheap battery connectors got up to 150°. That makes these modules unsuitable for high load applications like an e-bike, but it should be okay if you’re putting hundreds of these modules together to power your house. It might be a good idea to invest in some cooling, though.
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