Tiny Cube Hosts A Hearty Tube

Tiny PCBAs and glowy VFD tubes are like catnip to a Hackaday writer, so when we saw [hamster]’s TubeCube tube segment driver we had to dig in to learn more. We won’t bury the lede here; let’s enjoy a video of glowing tubes before we go further:

The TubeCube is built to fit the MiniBadge badge addon standard, which is primarily used to host modules on the SAINTCON conference badge. A single TubeCube hosts a VFD tube, hardware to provide a 70 V supply, and a microcontroller for communication and control. Each TubeCube is designed to accept ASCII characters via UART to display on it’s display, but they can also be chained together for even more excitement. We’re not sure how [hamster] would be able to physically wear the beast in the video above, but if he can find a way, they all work together. If you’re interested in seeing the dead simple UART communication scheme take a look at this file.

We think it’s also worth pointing about the high voltage supply. To the software or mechanically minded among us it’s easy to get trapped thinking about switching power supplies as a magical construct which can only be built using all-in-one control ICs. But [hamster]’s supply is a great reminder that a switching supply, even a high voltage one, isn’t as complex as all that. His design (which he says was cribbed from Adafruit’s lovely Ice Tube Clock) is essentially composed of the standard primitives. A big low voltage capacitor C1 to source the burst of energy which will be boosted, the necessary inductor/high voltage cap C2 which ends up at the target voltage, and a smoothing cap C3 to make the output a little nicer. It’s controlled by the microcontroller toggling Q1 to control the current flow through L1. The side effect is that by controlling the PWM frequency [hamster] can vary the brightness of the tubes.

Right now it looks like the repository has a schematic and sources, which should be enough to build a small tube driver of your own. If you can’t get enough TubeCubes, there’s one more video (of a single module) after the break.

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Give Your Solar Garden Lights A Color Changing LED Upgrade

White LEDs were the technological breakthrough that changed the world of lighting, now they are everywhere. There’s no better sign of their cost-effective ubiquity than the dollar store solar garden light: a complete unit integrating a white LED with its solar cell and battery storage. Not content with boring white lights on the ground, [Emily] decided to switch up their colors with a mix of single-color LEDs and dynamic color-changing LEDs, then hung them up high as colorful solar ornaments.

The heart of these solar devices is a YX8018 chip (or one of its competitors.) While the sun is shining, solar power is directed to charge up the battery. Once the solar cell stops producing power, presumably because the sun has gone down, the chip starts acting as a boost converter (“Joule thief”) pushing a single cell battery voltage up high enough to drive its white LED. Changing that LED over to a single color LED is pretty straightforward, but a color changing LED adds a bit of challenge. The boost converter deliver power in pulses that are too fast for human eyes to pick up but the time between power pulses is long enough to cause a color-changing circuit to reset itself and never get beyond its boot-up color.

The hack to keep a color-changing LED’s cycle going is to add a capacitor to retain some charge between pulses, and a diode to prevent that charge from draining back into the rest of the circuit. A ping-pong ball serves as light diffuser, and the whole thing is hung up using a 3D-printed sheath which adds its own splash of color.

Solar garden lights are great basis for a cheap and easy introduction to electronics hacking. We’ve seen them turn into LED throwies, into a usable flashlight, or even to power an ATTiny microcontroller.

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Simple Ultrasound Machine Shows The Skeleton Lurking Inside Us All

That first glimpse of a child in the womb as a black and white image on a screen is a thrilling moment for any parent-to-be, made possible by several hundred thousand dollars worth of precision medical instrumentation. This ultrasound machine cobbled together from eBay parts and modules is not that machine by a long shot, but it’s still a very cool project that actually gives a peek inside the skin.

The ultrasound transducer used by [stoppi71] in this build has an unusual source: a commercial paint-thickness meter. Cue the jokes about watching paint dry, but coatings measurement is serious stuff. Even so, the meter in question only ran about $40 on eBay, and provided the perfect transducer for the build. The sender needs a 100V pulse at about 5 MHz, so [stoppi71] had some fun with a boost converter and a 74121 Schmitt-trigger one-shot driving a MOSFET to switch the high voltage. On the receive side, the faint echo is sent through a three-stage amp using AD811 op amps before going through an LM7171 op amp acting as a rectifier and peak detector. Echos are sent to an Arduino Due for display on a 320×480 LCD. The resolution isn’t great, but the video below shows that it’s enough to see reflections from the skin of [stoppi71]’s forearm and from the bones within.

[stoppi71] says that he was inspired to tackle this build by Murgen, an open-source ultrasound project. That project got further refined and entered into the “Best Product” category in the 2018 Hackaday Prize. We like that because focusing on turning projects into products is what this year’s Hackaday Prize is all about.

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Reworking MT3608 Boost Converters For Lower Idle Current Draw

The MT3608 is a popular boost converter, able to easily step up DC voltages in useful ranges, at an incredibly low cost. Modules can be sourced from eBay for less than $2, built on a PCB, ready to go. One drawback of these modules, particularly when working with batteries, is the idle current draw, on the order of 1 to 1.5mA. Fear not, however — there is a workaround, courtesy of [Aka Kasyan]. (Video, embedded below.)

The trick is to modify the behavior of the converter when no load is connected. The enable pin of the boost converter is held low through a pull-down resistor, keeping the boost converter switched off. In this state, the output voltage is equal to the input voltage. A current sense resistor is then installed in the output path. When a load is connected, this causes a voltage drop across the current sense resistor. This is then used to switch a transistor, which then connects the enable pin to the positive rail, switching the converter on, leading to the full boosted output voltage being reached.

[Aya] reports that this drastically cuts the idle current draw, which is particularly useful for battery powered projects. It’s important to note that the current sense resistor must be appropriately sized for the given load, however. If you’re a little hazy on the background, fear not — we’ve discussed the nature of boost converters before. Video after the break.

[Thanks to Baldpower for the tip!]
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Building A 3D Printer That Goes Where You Do

Back when one of the best paths to desktop 3D printer ownership was building the thing yourself from laser cut wood with some string thrown in for good measure, just saying you had one at home would instantly boost your hacker street cred. It didn’t even need to work particularly well (which is good, since it probably didn’t), you just had to have one. But now that 3D printers have become so common, the game has changed. If you want to keep on the cutting edge, you’ve got to come up with a unique hook.

Luckily for us, [Thomas Sanladerer] is here to advance the status quo of desktop 3D printing. Not content with a 3D printer that spends its time loafing around the workshop, he decided to build a completely mobile 3D printer. For a guy who spends a lot of time traveling to different 3D printing conferences and shows, this is actually a pretty handy thing to have around, but there are probably some lessons to be learned here even if you aren’t a 3D printing YouTube celebrity.

Given the wide array of very popular low cost 3D printers out there, some will likely be surprised that [Thomas] decided to mobilize a printer which is nearly an antique at this point: the PrinterBot Play. But as he explains in the video after the break, the design of the Play really lends itself perfectly to life on the road. For one, it’s an extremely rigid printer thanks to its (arguably overkill) steel construction. Compared to most contemporary 3D printers which are often little more than a wispy collection of aluminium extrusion and zip ties, the boxy design of the Play also offers ample room inside for additional electronics and wiring

The most obvious addition to the PrintrBot is the six Sony NP-F camera batteries that [Thomas] attaches to the back of the printer by way of 3D printed mounts, but there’s also quite a bit of hardware hidden inside to break the machine free from its alternating current shackles. The bank of batteries feed simultaneously into a DC boost converter which brings the battery voltage up to the 12 V required for the printer’s electronics and motors, and a DC regulator which brings the voltage down to the 5 V required by the Raspberry Pi running OctoPrint. There’s even a charge controller hiding in there which not only frees him from carrying around a separate charger, but lets him top up the cells while the printer is up and running.

On the software side of things, the Raspberry Pi is configured to work as a WiFi access point so that OctoPrint can be controlled with a smartphone even if there’s no existing network in place. A fact demonstrated when he takes the printer outside for a walk while it’s in the middle of a job. The ability to control the printer without any existing infrastructure combined with the estimated six hour runtime on a charge means this modified PrinterBot can get the job done no matter where [Thomas] finds himself.

The hacker community was saddened by the news that PrintrBot was closing its doors last year, an unfortunate casualty of an increasingly competitive desktop 3D printing market. But perhaps we can take some comfort from the fact that their eminently hackable open source printers still live on in projects such as this.

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Vintage Audio Gear Gets A Display Upgrade

The lengths the retrocomputing devotee must go to in order to breathe new life into old gear can border on the heroic. Tracing down long-discontinued parts, buying multiple copies of the same unit to act as organ donors for the one good machine, and when all else fails, improvising with current productions parts to get that vintage look and feel.

This LCD display backlighting fix for a vintage audio sampler falls into that last category, which was pulled off by [Inkoo Vintage Computer]. The unit in question is an Akai S1100 sampler, a classic from the late 1980s that had already been modified to replace the original floppy drive with a USB reader when the backlight on the LCD began to give out. Replacements for the original electroluminescent backlight are available, but [Inkoo] opted for a cheaper way out. An iPhone 6s 6 Plus backlight was an inexpensive option, if it could be made to fit. Luckily, [Inkoo] was able to trim the diffuser without causing any electrical issues. A boost converter was needed to run the backlight from the sampler’s 5 V DC rail, and interfacing the backlight’s flexible circuitry to the 80s-era copper wiring was a bit fussy, but the results were great. The sampler’s LCD is legible again, and looks just like it might have in the studio back when [Depeche Mode] and [Duran Duran] were using it to crank out hits.

As much as we like this repair, it doesn’t imply that EL is a dead technology. Far from it – [Ben Krasnow] is using it to create unique displays, and EL wire makes for some dazzling wearables. It doesn’t last forever, but while it does, it’s pretty neat stuff.

A Flashlight Powered By Your Hot Little Hands

We are smack-dab in the middle of our Energy Harvesting Challenge, and [wasimashu] might have this one in the palm of his hand. Imagine a compact flashlight that doesn’t need batteries or bulbs. You’d buy a 10-pack and stash them everywhere, right? If there’s nothing that will leak or break or expire in your lifetime, why not have a bunch of them around?

Infinity uses nothing but body heat to power a single white LED. It only needs a five-degree temperature difference between the air and your hand to work, so it should be good in pretty much any environment. While it certainly won’t be the brightest light in your collection, it’s a whole lot better than darkness. Someday, it might be the only light around that works.

As you might expect, there’s a Peltier unit involved. Two of them, actually. Both are embedded flush on opposite sides of the hollow aluminum flashlight body, which acts as a heat sink and allows air to pass through.  After trying to boost the output voltage with a homemade feedback oscillator and hand-wound transformers, [wasimashu] settled on a unipolar boost converter to reach the 5V needed to power the LED.

[wasimashu] has made it his personal mission to help humanity through science. We’d say that Infinity puts him well on the way, and can’t wait to see what he does next.