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.
There’s some interesting technology bundled into this energy harvesting wristwatch. While energy harvesting timepieces (called automatic watches) have been around for nearly 240 years, [bobricius] has used parts and methods that are more easily transferable to other projects.
Unlike early mechanical systems, this design uses the versatile BPW34 PIN photodiode (PDF warning). PIN photodiodes differ from ordinary PN diodes in that there’s a layer of undoped ‘intrinsic’ silicon separating the P and N doped layers. This reduces the utility of the diode as a rectifier, while allowing for higher quantum efficiency and switching speed.
They are typically used in the telecommunications industry, but have a number of interesting ‘off label’ applications. For example, the BPW34 can be used as a solid-state particle detector (although for detecting alpha particles you’re better off with something in a TO-5 package such as the Hamamatsu S1223-01). The fast response speed means you can send data with lasers or ambient light at high frequencies – a fun use for an LED lighting system or scrap DVD-RW laser.
Some common solar panels are essentially large PIN photodiodes. These are the brownish panels that you’ll find in a solar-powered calculator, or one of those eternally waving golden plastic neko shrines. They specifically offer excellent low-light performance, which is the basis of the energy harvesting used in this project.
Continue reading “Energy Harvesting Wristwatch Uses a Versatile Photodiode”
[Alex] built what he calls a light to sound converter. It reacts differently depending on the type of light: remote controls, light bulbs, TV screens, etc. A photodiode is used with an amplifier to pick up the light change. That signal is dumped through a dual opamp. He swapped in several different types of photodiodes and settled on the BPW34 intended for visible light. He’ll be incorporating this into a much larger project.