A Simple Hack For Running Low-Power Gear From A USB Battery Pack

We’ve all been there. You’ve cooked up some little microcontroller project, but you need to unhook it from your dev PC and go mobile. There’s just one problem — you haven’t worked up a battery solution yet. “No problem!” you exclaim. “I’ll just use a USB battery pack!” But the current draw is too low, and the pack won’t stay on. “Blast!” you exclaim, because you’ve been watching too much Family Guy or something.

[PatH] had this very problem recently, when trying to work with Meshtastic running on a RAKwireless WisBlock Base Board. You’re supposed to hook up your own rechargeable LiPo battery, but [PatH] was in a hurry. Instead, a USB battery pack was pressed into service, but it kept shutting down. The simple trick was to just add a 100-ohm resistor across the device’s battery terminals. That took the current draw from just 15 mA up to 53 mA, which was enough to keep portable USB power banks interested in staying switched on.

It’s an easy hack for an oddball problem, and it just might get you out of a bind one day. If you’ve got any nifty tricks like this up your sleeve, don’t hesitate to let us know!

Current-Based Side-Channel Attacks, Two Ways

Funny things can happen when a security researcher and an electronics engineer specializing in high-speed circuits get together. At least they did when [Limpkin] met [Roman], which resulted in two interesting hardware solutions for side-channel attacks.

As [Limpkin] relates it, the tale began when he shared an office with [Roman Korkikian], a security researcher looking into current-based attacks on the crypto engine inside ESP32s. The idea goes that by monitoring the current consumption of the processor during cryptographic operations, you can derive enough data to figure out how it works. It’s difficult to tease a useful signal from the noise, though, and [Roman]’s setup with long wire runs and a noisy current probe wasn’t helping at all. So [Limpkin] decided to pitch in.

The first board he designed was based on a balun, which he used to isolate the device under test from the amplification stage. He found a 1:8 balun, normally used to match impedances in RF circuits, and used its primary as a shunt resistance between the power supply — a CR1220 coin cell — and the DUT. The amplifier stage is a pair of low-noise RF amps; a variable attenuator was added between the amp stages on a second version of the board.

Board number two took a different tack; rather than use a balun, [Limpkin] chose a simple shunt resistor with a few twists. To measure the low-current signal on top of the ESP32’s baseline draw would require such a large shunt resistor that the microcontroller wouldn’t even boot, so he instead used an OPA855 wideband low-noise op-amp as an amplified shunt. The output of that stage goes through the same variable attenuator as the first board, and then to another OPA855 gain stage. The board is entirely battery-powered, relying on nice, quiet 18650s to power both the DUT and the shunt.

How well does it work? We’ll let you watch the talk below and make up your own mind, but since they’ve used these simple circuits to break a range of different chips, we’d say this approach a winner.

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Wiring Up 100 Car Batteries So You Don’t Have To

We’re willing to bet most Hackaday readers have accidentally spot welded a few electrical contacts together over the years, complete with the surge of adrenaline that comes with the unexpected pops and sparks. It’s a mistake you’ll usually only make once or twice. But where most of us would look back at such mishaps as cautionary experiences, [Styropyro] sees an opportunity.

Armed with 100 car batteries wired in parallel, his recent video sees him pitting an assortment of household objects against the combined might of eighty-five thousand amps. Threaded rods, bolts, and angle iron all produce the sort of lightshow you’d expect, but [Styropyro] quickly discovered that holding larger objects down was more difficult than anticipated. It turns out that the magnetic fields being generated by the incredible amount of current rushing through the system was pulling the terminals apart and breaking the connection. After reinforcing the business end of his rig, he was able to tackle stouter objects such as crowbars and wrenches with explosive results.

A modified log splitter serves as a remotely operated switch.

We found that his remotely operated switch, built out of a hydraulic log splitter, to be a particular highlight of the video — unfortunately he only briefly goes over its construction at the very start. His side experiment, fashioning an sort of manually-operated carbon arc lamp with a pair of thick graphite electrodes and demonstrating is luminous efficacy compared to modern LEDs was an unexpected treat. As was the off-the-shelf domestic circuit breaker that impressed [Styropyro] by refusing to yield even after repeated jolts.

While the showers of sparks and vaporized metal might trigger some sweaty palms among the audience, we’ve seen [Styropyro] handle far scarier contraptions in the past. Though he may come off as devil-may-care in his videos, we figure there’s no way he could have made it this long without blinding or maiming himself if he didn’t know what he was doing.

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Measuring current draw of home shop tools

Using Homebrew Coils To Measure Mains Current, And Taking The Circuit Breaker Challenge

Like many hackers, [Matthias Wandel] has a penchant for measuring the world around him, and quantifying the goings-on in his home is a bit of a hobby. And so when it came time to sense the current flowing in the wires of his house, he did what any of us would do: he built his own current sensing system.

What’s that you say? Any sane hacker would buy something like a Kill-a-Watt meter, or even perhaps use commercially available current transformers? Perhaps, but then one wouldn’t exactly be hacking, would one? [Matthias] opted to roll his own sensors for quite practical reasons: commercial meters don’t quite have the response time to catch the start-up spikes he was interested in seeing, and clamp-on current transformers require splitting the jacket on the nonmetallic cabling used in most residential wiring — doing so tends to run afoul of building codes. So his sensors were simply coils of wire shaped to fit the outside of the NM cable, with a bit of filtering to provide a cleaner signal in the high-noise environment of a lot of switch-mode power supplies.

Fed through an ADC board into a Raspberry Pi, [Matthias]’ sensor system did a surprisingly good job of catching the start-up surge of some tools around the shop. That led to the entertaining “Circuit Breaker Challenge” part of the video below, wherein we learn just what it really takes to pop the breaker on a 15-Amp branch circuit. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot.

Speaking of staying safe with mains current, we’ve covered a little bit about how circuit protection works before. If you need a deeper dive into circuit breakers, we’ve got that too.

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High Current Measurement Probe For Oscilloscopes

A decent current measurement sensor ought to be an essential part of every hacker’s workbench. One that is capable of measuring DC, as well as low and high frequencies with reasonable accuracy. And bonus credits if it can also withstand high bus voltages – such as those found in mains utility or electric vehicle work. [Undersilicon] couldn’t find one that ticked all the boxes, so he built an ACS730 based AC/DC current probe capable of measuring up to 25 A at frequencies up to 1 MHz.

Allegro Microsystems has a wide offering of current sensor IC’s. The ACS730 features a -3 dB bandwidth of 1 MHz, and -1 dB bandwidth of 500 kHz. Since it is galvanically isolated, it can be used in AC mains applications up to 297 Vrms and for DC up to 420 V. And as he intended to use it as an oscilloscope accessory, the analog output suited the application nicely. A pair of precision op-amps provide the voltage output scaled to 100 mV/A. The board is powered off a 1000 mAh LiPo battery that can run the sensor for about 15 ~ 20 hours. The power supply section consists of a charge circuit for the LiPo, and a split rail dual output power supply converter for the op-amps.

The ACS730 has a 2.5 V output when measured current is zero, and is scaled for 40 mV/A. This gives an output voltage swing from -0.5 V for -50 A to +4.5 V for +50 A. This is where the AD823ARZ dual 16 MHz, Rail-to-Rail FET Input Amplifiers step in. One pair is used to obtain a 2.5 V reference from the 5 V supply, and also to buffer the analog output from the ACS730. The second pair subtracts the 2.5 V offset, and applies a gain of 2.5 to get the 100 mV/A output. Dual power supply for the op-amps comes from a TPS65133 Split-Rail Converter, ±5V, 250mA Dual Output Power Supply. Lastly, LiPo charging is handled by the MCP73831 Single Cell, Li-Ion/Li-Polymer Charge Management Controller.

Initial testing of direct currents has shown fairly accurate performance. But he’s observed some noise when measuring currents below 1 A which requires some debugging to figure out the source. [Undersilicon] has provided the CAD files for both the PCB and 3D printed enclosure, giving you access to everything you need to build one yourself. If you’re looking for something a bit more heavy duty, you might be interested in this +/-50 A, 1.5 MHz sensor encased in concrete.

Current Sensor Makes Intriguing Use Of Concrete

Getting a product to market isn’t all about making sure that the product does what it’s supposed to. Granted, most of us will spend most of our time focusing on the functionality of our projects and less on the form, fit, or finish of the final product, especially for one-off builds that won’t get replicated. For those builds that do eventually leave the prototyping phase, though, a lot more effort goes into the final design and “feel” of the product than we might otherwise think. For example, this current sensor improves its feel by making use of cast concrete in its case.

The current sensor in this build is not too much out of the ordinary. [kevarek] built the sensor around the MCA1101-50-3 chip and added some extra features to improve its electrostatic discharge resistance and also to improve its electromagnetic compatibility over and above the recommended datasheet specifications. The custom case is where this one small detail popped out at us that we haven’t really seen much of before, though. [kevarek] mixed up a small batch of concrete to pour into the case simply because it feels better to have a weightier final product.

While he doesn’t mention building this current sensor to sell to a wider audience, this is exactly something that a final marketable product might have within itself to improve the way the device feels. Heavier things are associated, perhaps subconsciously, with higher quality, and since PCBs and plastic casings don’t weigh much on their own many manufacturers will add dummy weights to improve the relationship between weight and quality. Even though this modification is entirely separate from the function of the product, it’s not uncommon for small changes in design to have a measurable impact on performance, even when the original product remains unmodified.

Thanks to [Saabman] for the tip!

A Low-Cost Current Probe For IoT Applications

When it comes to the Internet of Things, many devices run off batteries, solar power, or other limited sources of electricity. This means that low power consumption is key to success. However, often these circuits draw relatively small currents that are difficult to measure, with plenty of transient current draw from their RF circuits. To effectively measure these low current draws, [Refik Hadzialic] built a cheap but accurate current probe.

The probe consists of a low value resistor of just 0.1 Ω, acting as a current shunt in series with the desired load. By measuring the voltage drop across this known resistor, it’s possible to calculate the current draw of the circuit.

However, the voltage drop is incredibly small for low current draws, so some amplification is needed. [Refik] does a great job of explaining his selection process, going deep into the maths involved to get the gain and part choice just right. The INA128P instrumentation amplifier from Texas Instruments was chosen, thanks to its good Common Mode Rejection Ratio (CMRR) and gain bandwidth.

The final circuit performs well, competing admirably with the popular uCurrent Gold measurement tool. While less feature-packed, [Refik]’s circuit appears to perform better in the noise stakes, likely due to the great CMRR rating of the TI part. It’s a great example of how the DIY approach can net solid results over and above simply buying something off the shelf.

Current sensing is a key skill to have in your toolbox, and can even help solve laundry disputes. Video after the break.

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