Tiny Solar Energy Module (TSEM) Brings Big Performance

The Tiny Solar Energy Module (TSEM) by [Jasper Sikken] is not only physically tiny at one-inch square, but it is all about gathering tiny amounts of solar energy — amounts too small to be useful in a conventional sense — and getting meaningful work done, like charging a battery for later use. Elements that make this board easy to integrate into other projects include castellated vias, 1.8 V and 3.3 V regulated outputs that are active when the connected battery has a useful charge, and a low battery warning that informs the user of impending shutdown when the battery runs low. The two surface-mount solar cells included on the tiny board are capable of harvesting even indoor light, but the board also has connection points for using larger external solar cells if needed.

The board shows excellent workmanship and thoughtful features; it was one of the twenty Power Harvesting Challenge finalists chosen to head to the final round of The Hackaday Prize. The Hackaday Prize is still underway, with the Human-Computer Interface Challenge running until August 27th. That will be followed by the Musical Instrument Challenge before the finals spin up. If you haven’t started yet, there’s still time to make your mark. All you need is a documented idea, so start your entry today.

Ultra-Low Power, Energy Harvesting Battery Charger

This half-inch square ultra-low power energy harvesting LiPo cell charger by [Kris Winer] uses a low voltage solar panel to top up a small lithium-polymer cell, which together can be used as the sole power source for projects. It’s handy enough that [Kris] uses them for his own projects and offers them for sale to fellow hackers. It’s also his entry into the Power Harvesting Challenge of the Hackaday Prize.

The board is essentially a breakout board for the Texas Instrument BQ25504, configured to charge and maintain a single lithium-polymer cell. The BQ25504 is an integrated part that takes care of most of the heavy lifting and has nifty features like battery health monitoring and undervoltage protection. [Kris] has been using the board along with a small 2.2 Volt solar panel and a 150 mAh LiPo cell to power another project of his: the SensorTile environmental data logger.

It’s a practical and useful way to test things; he says that an average of 6 hours of direct sunlight daily is just enough to keep the 1.8 mA SensorTile running indefinitely. These are small amounts of power, to be sure, but it’s free and self-sustaining which is just what a remote sensing unit needs.

Charging An Electric Supercar With Lemons, Kids, And The Sun

First things first: the tease on this video, that an electric supercar can be charged from a massive lemon battery array, is exactly that – a tease. Despite that, it makes for an interesting story and a great attempt to get kids exposed to science and engineering.

The story goes that [Mark] was approached by Volkswagen to help charge the batteries on their entry for the upcoming Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, the annual “Race to the Clouds” in Colorado. Racers are tortured by a 4,700′ (1,440 m) vertical climb over a 12.42 mile (20 km) course that features 156 switchback turns. Volkswagen’s entry is an electric supercar, and they sent [Mark] a portable battery cart to charge up the best way he saw fit.

Teaming up with [William Osman], the first attempt was a massive array of lemon cells, made with waterjet-cut strips of zinc and copper held in a plywood frame. Studded with 1,232 lemons, the battery performed just about as well as you’d expect it would. Plan B was cute, and another of [Mark]’s attempts to pad his “Funnest Uncle Ever” score a bit. He devised a zip line with regenerative braking to charge a cordless drill battery, and then indirectly harvested the energy in the battery by turning it into lemonade for a bunch of kids. The sugared-up kids rode the zip line till the battery was charged.

That was still a drop in the bucket, though, so Plan C saw [Mark] install a large solar array on his roof; the tie-in here was that the lemon-powered kids got to design a cleaning system for the solar array. A weak link, to be sure, but the kids had fun, and we can’t deny that the car will at least be partially lemon-powered when it heads up the hill.

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Battery-Powered Watering Timer Converted to Solar on the Cheap

Watering the garden or the lawn is one of those springtime chores that is way more appealing early in the season than later. As the growing season grinds along, a chore that seemed life-giving and satisfying becomes, well, just another chore, and plants often suffer for it.

Automating the watering task can be as simple as buying a little electronic timer valve that turns on the flow at the appointed times. [A1ronzo] converted his water hose timer to solar power. Most such timers are very similar, with a solenoid-operated pilot valve in line with the water supply and an electronic timer of some sort. The whole thing is quite capable of running on a pair of AA batteries, but rather than wasting money on new batteries several times a season, he slipped a LiPo pack and a charge controller into the battery case slot and connected a small solar panel to the top of the controller.

The LiPo is a nominal 3.7-volt pack, so he did a little testing to make sure the timer would be OK with the higher voltage. The solar panel sits on top of the case, and the whole thing should last for years. And bonus points for never having to replace a timer that you put away at the end of the season with batteries still in it, only to have them leak. Ask us how we know.

Like the best of hacks, this one is quick, easy and cheap — $15 in parts, aside from the timer. There are more complicated irrigation solutions, of course, one of which even won the Hackaday Prize once upon a time. But this one has us ordering parts to build our own right now.

Why Won’t This Darn Thing Charge?

What is more fun than plugging in your phone and coming back to find your battery on empty? Stepping on a LEGO block with bare feet or arriving hungry at a restaurant after closing probably qualify. [Alex Sidorenko] won’t clean your floors or order you a pizza, but he can help you understand why cheap chargers won’t always power expensive devices. He also shows how to build an adapter to make them work despite themselves.

The cheapest smart device chargers take electricity from your home or car and convert it to five volts of direct current. That voltage sits on the power rails of a USB socket until you plug in a cable. If you’re fortunate, you might get a measly fuse.

Smart device manufacturers don’t make money when you buy an off-brand charger, and they can’t speak to the current protection of them, so they started to add features on their own chargers to protect their components and profit margins. In the case of dedicated chargers, a simple resistor across the data lines tells your phone it is acceptable power. Other devices are more finicky, but [Alex Sidorenko] shows how they work and provides Eagle files to build whatever flavor you want. Just be positive that your power supply is worthy of the reliability these boards promise to the device.

Now you know why connecting a homemade benchtop power supply to a USB cable seems good on paper but doesn’t always get the job done. Always be safe when you make your own power supplies.

Cross-Brand Adapter Makes for Blended Battery Family

Even though he’s a faithful DeWalt cordless tool guy, [Richard Day] admits to a wandering eye in the tool aisle, looking at the Ryobi offerings with impure thoughts. Could he stay true to his brand and stick with his huge stock of yellow tools and batteries, or would he succumb to temptation and add another set of batteries and chargers so he could have access to a few specialty lime green tools?

Luckily, we live in the future, so there’s a third way — building a cross-brand battery adapter that lets him power Ryobi tools with his DeWalt batteries. [Richard]’s solution is a pure hack, as in physically hacking battery packs and forcing them to work and play well together. Mechanically, this was pretty easy — a dead Ryobi pack from the recycling bin at Home Depot was stripped down for its case, which was glued to a Dewalt 20-v to 18-v battery adapter. The tricky part came from dealing with the battery control electronics. Luckily, the donor DeWalt line has that circuitry in the adapter, while Ryobi puts it in the battery. That meant simply transplanting the PCB from the adapter to the Ryobi battery shell would be enough. The video below shows the process and the results — Ryobi tools happily clicking away on DeWalt batteries.

While [Richard] took a somewhat brute-force approach here, we imagine 3D-printed parts might make for a more elegant solution and offer other brand permutations. After all, printing an adapter should be easier than whipping up a cordless battery pack de novo.

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Repairing a Macbook Charger… With a Pistachio Nut

Laptop chargers face a hard life. They’re repeatedly plugged and unplugged, coiled up, stuffed into bags, thrown around, and just generally treated fairly poorly. Combine this with fairly lightweight design and it’s not uncommon for a laptop charger to fail after a few years. It’s usually the connector that goes first. Such was the case when I found myself face to face with a failed Macbook charger, and figured it’d be a simple fix. Alas, I was wrong.

Unlike most PC manufacturers, who rely on the humble barrel jack and its readily available variants, Apple liked to use the Magsafe connector on its Macbook line. This connector has many benefits, such as quick release in the event someone trips over the cable, and the fact that it can be plugged in without regard to orientation. However, it’s not the easiest to fix. When the charger began failing, I noticed two symptoms. The first was that the charger would only function if the cable was held just so, in exactly the right orientation. The other, was that even when it would charge, the connector would become very hot. This led me to suspect an intermittent connection was the culprit, and it was quite a poor one at that; the high resistance leading to the heat issue.

It’s at this point with any other charger that you get out your trusty sidecutters, lop the end off, and tap away at Digikey to get a replacement part on the way. With Magsafe? No dice. Replacement parts simply aren’t available — a common problem with proprietary connectors. I endeavoured to fix the problem anyway. I began to strip away the metal shell around the back of the connector with my sidecutters, and eventually an angle grinder. A Dremel would have been the perfect tool for the job, actually, but I persevered regardless. After much consternation, I had the connector peeled back and was able to identify the problem.

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