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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Power Your Guitar Pedals With Drill Batteries

Guitar pedals are a great way to experiment with the sound of your instrument. However, they require electricity, and when you’re using more than a couple, it can get messy. Some will run on batteries, while others are thirstier for more current and will only work with a plugback. There are a great many solutions out there, but most people with more than a few pedals to power will end up going to some kind of mains powered solution. [Don] is here to show us that it’s not the only way.

Mains power is great for some things, but where pedals are concerned, it’s not always perfect. There are issues with noise, both from cheap power supplies and poorly designed pedals, and it means you’re always hunting for a power socket, which is limiting for buskers.

[Don] realised that the common drill battery is a compact source of clean, DC power, and decided to use that to power his rig. By slapping together a drill battery with a pre-assembled buck converter and a 3D printed adapter, he was able to build a portable power supply for his pedals. Thanks to the fact that the vast majority of pedals use 9V DC with the same input jack design, it’s a cinch to wire up. With an appropriately sized buck converter, a drill battery could supply even a hefty pedalboard for a significant period of time.

Overall, it’s a great hack that solves a problem faced by many performing musicians. We’ve seen our fair share of guitar pedals around Hackaday – perhaps you’d like to see how one makes it from concept to production?

Coin-Sized LED Control

EE and firmware developer [Enrico] had played with LEDs as a kid, burning out his fair share of them by applying too much current. With the benefit of his firmware chops, he set about creating a board that drives LEDs properly.

[Enrico]’s project centers around a Texas Instruments LM3405 buck controller. It accepts input voltage from anywhere from 3V to 20V and outputs up to 20V/15W to one or more LEDs. He built a ton of safety features into it like short-circuit and open-circuit immunity, temperature control, and auto-off switching when idle. He also created a LED board to test the maximum efficiency of the driver. It consists of four Luxeon Rebel ES diodes, one each RGB and W. The entire back of the LED board is copper, with a monster heat sink attached.

You can follow along with the Glighter-S project on Hackaday.io, or you can buy one of his boards from his Tindie store.

We’ve covered LED drivers extensively in the past, with posts on a simple 10-watt LED driver and how to design your own LED driver.