Circuit VR: An (Almost) Practical Buck Converter

In the last installment of Circuit VR, we walked around a simplified buck converter. The main simplification was using a constant PWM signal. The result is that the output voltage is a fixed fraction of the input voltage. For a regulator, the pulse width will need to depend on the output voltage so that any changes in the output are self-correcting. So this time, we’ll make a regulator, although we’ll still use a few Spice elements you’d have to replace in a practical design. In particular, we’ll assume you can generate a triangle wave, which is easy enough, and produce a stable 2.5 V reference.

The idea is to take a voltage reference and compare it to the output. We’ll think of the difference between the two as an error voltage, and use a comparator combined with a triangle wave generator to produce a PWM signal that is proportional to the error, and thus works to hold the output voltage constant.

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Open Hardware Takes Charge in Papua New Guinea

You probably don’t think much about charging your phone. Just find an outlet, plug it in, and wait a while. Can’t find a cable or wall wart? A rainbow of cheap, candy-colored options awaits you down at the brightly-lit corner drugstore.

This scenario couldn’t be further from reality in third world countries like Papua New Guinea, where people living in remote jungles have cell phone coverage, but have to charge their phones by hooking them up directly to cheap solar panels and old car batteries.

[Marius Taciuc] wants to change all of that. At the suggestion of his friend [Brian], he designed an intermediary device that takes any input and converts it to clean 5 volts with a low-cost, reliable buck converter. The inputs are a pair of alligator clips, so they can be connected to car battery terminals, bare-wire solar panel leads, or 9V connectors.

Mobile phones mean so much to the people of Papua New Guinea. They’re like a first-world care package of news, medical advice, and education. At night, they become simple, valuable lanterns. But these dirty charging hacks often lead to house fires. Someone will leave their phone to charge in the morning when they go off to hunt, and come home to a pile of ashes.

This is an open, simple device that could ultimately save someone’s life, and it’s exactly the type of project we’re looking for. [Marius] hopes to see these all over eBay someday, and so do we. Charge past the break to see [Marius] discuss the Brian Box and the people he’s trying to help.

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Circuit VR: Simple Buck Converters

The first thing I ever built without a kit was a 5 V regulated power supply using the old LM309K. That’s a classic linear regulator like a 7805. While they are simple, they waste a lot of energy as heat, especially if the input voltage goes higher. While there are still applications where linear regulators make sense, they are increasingly being replaced by switching power supplies that are much more efficient. How do switchers work? Well, you buy a switching power supply IC, add an inductor and you are done. Class dismissed. Oh wait… while that might be the best way to do it from a cost perspective, you don’t really learn a lot that way.

In this installment of Circuit VR, we’ll look at a simple buck converter — that is a switching regulator that takes a higher voltage and produces a lower voltage. The first one won’t actually regulate, mind you, but we’ll add that in a future installment. As usual for Circuit VR, we’ll be simulating the designs using LT Spice.

Interestingly, LT Spice is made to design power supplies so it has a lot of Linear Technology parts in its library just for that purpose. However, we aren’t going to use anything more sophisticated than an op amp. For the first pass, we won’t even be using those.

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Buck Converter Efficiency

We always appreciate when someone takes the time to build something and then demonstrates what different design choices impact using the real hardware. Sure, you can work out the math and do simulations, but there’s something about having real hardware that makes it tangible. [Julian Ilett] recently posted two videos that fit this description. He built a buck converter and made measurements about its efficiency using different configurations.

The test setup is simple. He monitors the drive PWM with a scope and has power meters on the input and output. That makes it easy to measure the efficiency since it is just the ratio of the power output to input. You can see the two videos, below.

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A DIY 5V-3V Switching Converter in the Space of a TO-220 Package

We’re suckers for miniaturization projects. Stuff anything into a small enough package and you’ve probably got our attention. Make that something both tiny and useful, like this 5-volt to 3.3-volt converter in a TO-220 sized package, and that’s something to get excited about. It’s a switch mode power supply that takes the same space as a traditional linear regulator.

Granted, the heavy lifting in [Kevin Hubbard]’s diminutive buck converter is done by a PAM2305 DC-DC step-down converter chip which needs only a few supporting components. But the engineering [Kevin] put into this to squeeze everything onto a scrap of PCB 9-mm on a side is impressive. The largest passive on the board is the inductor in 0805. Everything else is in 0603, so you’ll be putting your SMD soldering skills to the test if you decide to make this. Check the video after the break for a speedrun through the hand soldering process.

The total BOM including the open-source PCB only runs a buck or two, and the end result is a supply with steady 750-mA output that can handle a 1-A surge for five seconds. We wonder if a small heatsink tab might not help that; along with some black epoxy potting, it would at least complete the TO-220 look.

[Kevin]’s Black Mesa Labs has a history of turning out interesting projects, from a legit video card for Arduino to a 100-watt hotplate for reflow work that’s the size of a silver dollar. We’re looking forward to whatever’s next — assuming we can see it.

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Building a Portable Solar Powered Spot Welder: Charging Supercapacitors

Before Lunar New Year, I had ordered two 3000 F, 2.7 V supercapacitors from China for about $4 each. I don’t actually remember why, but they arrived (unexpectedly) just before the holiday.

Supercapacitors (often called ultracapacitors) fill a niche somewhere between rechargeable lithium cells and ordinary capacitors. Ordinary capacitors have a low energy density, but a high power density: they can store and release energy very quickly. Lithium cells store a lot of energy, but charge and discharge at a comparatively low rate. By weight, supercapacitors store on the order of ten times less energy than lithium cells, and can deliver something like ten times lower power than capacitors.

Overall they’re an odd technology. Despite enthusiastic news coverage, they are a poor replacement for batteries or capacitors, but their long lifespan and moderate energy and power density make them suitable for some neat applications in their own right. Notably, they’re used in energy harvesting, regenerative braking, to extend the life of or replace automotive lead-acid batteries, and to retain data in some types of memory. You’re not likely to power your laptop with supercapacitors.

Anyway, I had a week-long holiday, and two large capacitors of dubious origin. Sometimes we live in the best of all possible worlds. Continue reading “Building a Portable Solar Powered Spot Welder: Charging Supercapacitors”

The uA723 As A Switch Mode Regulator

If you are an electronic engineer or received an education in electronics that went beyond the very basics, there is a good chance that you will be familiar with the Fairchild μA723. This chip designed by the legendary Bob Widlar and released in 1967 is a kit-of-parts for building all sorts of voltage regulators. Aside from being a very useful device, it may owe some of its long life to appearing as a teaching example in Paul Horowitz and Winfield Hill’s seminal text, The Art Of Electronics. It’s a favourite chip of mine, and I have written about it extensively both on these pages and elsewhere.

The Fairchild switching regulator circuit. From the μA723 data sheet in their 1973 linear IC databook, page 194 onwards.
The Fairchild switching regulator circuit. From the μA723 data sheet in their 1973 linear IC databook, page 194 onwards.

For all my experimenting with a μA723 over the decades there is one intriguing circuit on its data sheet that I have never had the opportunity to build. Figure 9 on the original Fairchild data sheet is a switching regulator, a buck converter using a pair of PNP transistors along with the diode and inductor you would expect. Its performance will almost certainly be eclipsed by a multitude of more recent dedicated converter chips, but it remains the one μA723 circuit I have never built. Clearly something must be done to rectify this situation.

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