Sailor Hat Adds Graceful Shutdown To Pis

Even though Windows and other operating systems constantly remind us to properly eject storage devices before removing them, plenty of people won’t heed those warnings until they finally corrupt a drive and cause all kinds of data loss and other catastrophes. It’s not just USB jump drives that can get corrupted, though. Any storage medium can become unusable if certain actions are being taken when the power is suddenly removed. That includes the SD cards on Raspberry Pis, too, and if your power isn’t reliable you might consider this hat to ensure they shut down properly during power losses.

The Raspberry Pi hat is centered around a series of supercapacitors which provide power for the Pi temporarily. The hat also communicates with the Pi to let it know there is a loss of power, so that the Pi can automatically shut itself down in that situation to prevent corrupting the memory card. The hat is more than just a set of backup capacitors, though. The device is capable of taking input power from a wide range of sources and filtering it for the power requirements of the Pi, especially in applications like boats and passenger vehicles where the input power might be somewhat noisy. There’s an optocoupled CAN bus interface as well for those looking to use this for automotive applications.

The entire project is also available on the project’s GitHub page for those wishing to build their own. Some sort of power backup is a good idea for any computer, though, not just Raspberry Pis. We’ve seen uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) with enough power to run an entire house including its computers, to smaller ones that’ll just keep your Internet online during a power outage.

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Build A Tesla Coil With Just Three Components

Tesla coils are beautiful examples of high voltage hardware, throwing sparks and teaching us about all kinds of fancy phenomena. They can also be quite intimidating to build. [William Fraser], however, has come up with a design using just three components.

It’s a simplified version of the “Slayer Exciter” design, which nominally features a transistor, resistor and LED, along with a coil, and runs on batteries. [William] learned that adding a capacitor in parallel with the batteries greatly improved performance, and allowed the removal of the LED without detriment. [William] also learned that the resistor was not necessary either, beyond starting the coil oscillating.

The actual 3-component build uses a 10 farad supercapacitor as a power source, hooked up to a 2N3904 NPN transistor and an 85-turn coil. It won’t start oscillating on its own, but when triggered by a pulse of energy from a piezo igniter, it jerks into life. The optimized design actually uses the shape of the assembled component leads to act as the primary coil. The tiny Tesla coil isn’t big and bold enough to throw big sparks, but it will light a fluorescent tube at close proximity.

If you like your Tesla coils musical, we have those too.

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Protect Vintage Gear With Easy Capacitor Reforming

Having acquired some piece of old electronic equipment, be it a computer, radio, or some test gear, the temptation is there to plug it in as soon as you’ve lugged it into the ‘shop. Don’t be so hasty. Those power supplies and analog circuits often have a number of old aluminium electrolytic capacitors of unknown condition, and bad things can happen if they suddenly get powered back up again. After a visual inspection, to remove and replace any with obvious signs of leakage and corrosion, those remaining may still not be up to their job, with the oxide layers damaged over time when sat idle, they can exhibit lower than spec capacitance, voltage rating or even be a dead short circuit. [TechTangents] presents for us a guide to detecting and reforming these suspect capacitors to hopefully bring them, safely, back to service once more.

Capacitor failure modes are plentiful

When manufactured, the capacitors are slowly brought up to operating voltage, before final encapsulation, which allows the thin oxide layer to form on the anode contact plate, this is an electrically driven chemical process whereby a portion of the electrolyte is decomposed to provide the needed oxygen ions. When operating normally, with a DC bias applied to the plates, this oxidation process — referred to as ‘self-healing’ — continues slowly, maintaining the integrity of the oxide film, and slowly consuming the electrolyte, which will eventually run dry and be unable to sustain the insulating oxide layer.

If left to sit un-powered for too long, the anodic oxide layer will decay, resulting in reduced operating voltage. When powered up, the reforming process will restart, but this will be in an uncontrolled environment, resulting in a lot of excess heat and gases being vented. It all depends on how thin the oxide layer got and if holes have started to form. That is, if there is any electrolyte left to react – it may already be far too late to rescue.

If the oxide layer is sufficiently depleted, the capacitor will start to conduct, with a resultant self-heating and runaway thermal decomposition. They can explode violently, which is why there are score marks at the top of the can to act as a weak point, where the contents can burst through. A bit like that ‘egg’ scene in Aliens!

Yucky leaky capacitor. Replace these! and clean-up that conductive goo too.

The ‘safe’ way to reform old capacitors is to physically remove them from the equipment, and apply a low, controlled voltage below the rated value to keep the bias current at a low value, perhaps just 2 mA. Slowly, the voltage can be increased to push the current back up to the initial forming level, so long as the current doesn’t go too high, and the temperature is within sensible bounds. The process ends when the applied voltage is at the rated value and the current has dropped off to low leakage values.

A word of warning though, as the ESR of the reformed caps could be a little higher than design, which will result in higher operating temperature and potentially increased ripple current in power supply applications.

We’re really glossing over this subject fast here, but [TechTangents] was kind enough to link to some fine capacitor-related reading for those who need a primer. Here is a US DoD handbook for reforming capacitors with advice on storage shelf life, some tech notes on using electrolytic capactors from chemi-con, and a general capacitor guide from TDK. Reforming caps is nothing new, here’s an previous article about repairs, and something a bit more recent.

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DIY capacitor leakage tester nestled among neighbours all mounted underneath a shelf

DIY Capacitor Leakage Tester With A Professional Finish

[Manuel Caldeira] has built a nice electronics work area that would be the envy of many, complete with an under-shelf rail of custom-built instruments that are specific to the needs of areas of electronics that [Manuel] is involved with. The highlighted project here is a capacitor leakage tester, which is very handy for sorting through piles of old parts looking for anything still within spec, or just verifying a part on a board is the culprit you suspect it is.

The thing is, certain types of capacitors have a limited life both in operation and in storage. Usually, we’re talking about electrolytics here, where the electrolyte solution can leak out or dry out, but also the passive oxide layer on the anode plate can deteriorate if the device is left unpowered for long periods — the oxide disintegrates, and the capacitor will start to leak current. Eventually, the breakdown can be bad enough for the capacitor to conduct so well that it overheats and the result can be a surprisingly violent experience. So, if you deal with capacitors a lot, especially electrolytics, then a leakage tester is a very good instrument to own.

We like [Manuel]’s construction method here, with custom PCBs nestled inside a simple bent aluminium enclosure. No need for a top or sides, as these, are intended to bolt underneath a shelf, and butt up against their neighbor. The front panel graphics are done in a simple but very effective manner, using printable sticker sheets, with a clear adhesive over-sheet. They certainly have a professional finish, and this is definitely a construction method worth considering.

For those a little unfamiliar with this important component, why not leap into some theory with this handy dive into the simple parallel plate capacitor? Next, may we suggest a little overview of the different capacitor types and how to best make use of them?

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Making Variable Capacitors By Stretching Aluminium Cans

Sometimes when you need a component, the best way to get it is by building it yourself. [North Carolina Prepper] did just that, creating his own trombone-style variable capacitor by stretching some aluminium beverage cans. 

The requirement was for a 26 pF to 472 pF capactitor, for a radio transmitting from 7 MHz to 30MHz. The concept was to use two beverage cans, one sliding inside the other, as a capacitor, with an insulating material in between.

To achieve this, a cheap exhaust-pipe expanding tool was used to stretch a regular can to the point where it would readily slide over an unmodified can, plus some additional gap to allow for a plastic insulating sheet in between. Annealing the can is important to stop it tearing up, but fundamentally, it’s a straightforward process.

The resulting trombone capacitor can readily be slid in and out to change its capacitance. The build as seen here achieved 33 pF to 690 pF without too much hassle, not far off the specs [North Carolina Prepper] was shooting for.

Radio hams are very creative at building their own equipment, especially when it comes to variable capacitors. Video after the break.

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Six Shooter Swaps Powder For Popped Capacitors

Modern firearms might seem far removed from the revolvers of the Old West, but conceptually, they still operate on the same principle: exploding gunpowder. But as anyone who has put too much voltage through an electrolytic capacitor knows, gunpowder isn’t the only thing that explodes. (Yes, it isn’t technically an explosion.)

[Jay Bowles] wondered if it would be possible to construct an electrically-fired weapon that used used a standard capacitor in place of the primer and powder of a traditional cartridge. While it would naturally have only the fraction of the muzzle velocity or energy of even the smallest caliber firearm, it would be an interesting look at an alternate approach to what has been considered a largely solved problem since the mid-1800s.

In his latest Plasma Channel video, [Jay] walks viewers through the creation of his unconventional pistol, starting with a scientific determination of how much energy you can get out of popped capacitor. His test setup involved placing a capacitor and small projectile into an acrylic tube, and noting the relation between the speed of the projectile and the voltage passed through the cap. At 30 VDC the projectile would reliably fire from the barrel of his makeshift cannon, but by tripling the voltage to 90 VDC, he noted that the muzzle velocity saw the same 3X improvement.

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Building A Spot Welder From 500 Junk Capacitors

[Kasyan TV] over on YouTube was given a pile of spare parts in reasonably large quantities, some of which were useful and allocated to specific projects, but given the given the kind of electronics they’re interested in, they couldn’t find a use for a bag of 500 or so low specification 470uF capacitors. These were not low ESR types, nor high capacitance, so unsuitable for power supply use individually. But, what about stacking them all in parallel? (video, embedded below) After a few quick calculations [Kasyan] determined that the total capacitance of all 500 should be around 0.23 Farads with an ESR of around 0.4 to 0.5 mΩ at 16V and packing a theoretical energy total of about 30 joules. That is enough to pack a punch in the right situation.

A PCB was constructed to wire 168 of the little cans in parallel, with hefty wide traces, reinforced with multiple strands of 1.8mm diameter copper wire and a big thick layer of solder over the top. Three such PCBs were wired in parallel with the same copper wire, in order to keep the total resistance as low as possible. Such a thing has a few practical uses, since the super low measured ESR of 0.6mΩ and large capacitance makes it ideal for smoothing power supplies in many applications, but could it be used to make a spot welder? Well, yes and no. When combined with one of the those cheap Chinese ‘spot welder’ controllers, it does indeed produce some welds on a LiPo cell with a thin nickel plated battery strip, but blows straight through it with little penetration. [Kasyan] found that the capacitor bank could be used in parallel with a decent LiPo cell giving a potentially ideal combination — a huge initial punch from the capacitors to blow through the strip and get the weld started and the LiPo following through with a lower (but still huge) current for a little longer to assist with the penetration into the battery terminal, finishing off the weld.

[Kaysan] goes into some measurements of the peak current delivery and the profile thereof, showing that even a pile of pretty mundane parts can, with a little care, be turned into something useful. How does such an assembly compare with a single supercapacitor? We talked about supercaps and LiPo batteries a little while ago, which was an interesting discussion, and in case you’re still interested, graphene-based hybrid supercapacitors are a thing too!

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