Cleaning up a Low-Cost Buck-Boost Supply

Cheap DC-DC converters have been a boon on the hobbyist bench for a while now, but they can wreak havoc with sensitive circuits if you’re not careful. The problem: noise generated by the switch-mode supply buried within them. Is there anything you can do about the noise?

As it turns out, yes there is, and [Shahriar] at The Signal Path walks us through a basic circuit to reduce noise from DC-DC converters. The module under the knife is a popular buck-boost converter with a wide input range, 0-32 VDC output at up to 5 amps, and a fancy controller with an LCD display. But putting the stock $32 supply on a scope reveals tons of harmonics across a 1 MHz band and overall ripple of about 66 mV. But a simple voltage follower built from a power op-amp and a Zener diode does a great job of reducing the spikes and halving the ripple. The circuit is just a prototype and is meant more as a proof of principle and launching point for further development, and as such it’s far from perfect. The main downside is the four-volt offset from the input voltage; there’s also a broad smear of noise at the high end of the spectrum that persists even with the circuit in place. Centered around 900 MHz as it is, we suspect a cell signal of some sort is getting in. 900 kHz.

If you haven’t checked out the videos at The Signal Path, you really should. [Shahriar] really has a knack for explaining advanced topics in RF engineering, and has a bench to die for. We’ve covered quite a few of his projects before, from salvaging a $2700 spectrum analyzer to multiplexing fiber optic transmissions.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Scorpion DC-DC Voltage Converter

Finding the right wall wart or charger to go with an appliance might be a matter of convenience to you and I, but there are some people who really, really need the right charger, because not having it could mean a fire.

[marius] is a Romanian hardware engineer who moved to Papua New Guinea, where he had the opportunity to travel in the remote jungle of that country. There, he saw many people who used solar panels to charge car batteries for a 3W light bulb at night, their phones, or other conveniences that only need a few Watt-hours a day. Connecting car batteries directly to solar panels isn’t a smart idea, so [marius] set out to create a simple, very low-cost DC-DC voltage converter. He’s calling it the Scorpion 3.0, and it looks like a fantastic tool for low-income areas that are far off the grid.

The design of the Scorpion consists of a 3D printed enclosure, with one forked end containing some alligator clip leads, and a standard barrel jack on the other. In the middle is a character display showing the input and output voltage, and a simple rotary encoder for user interaction. The circuit for the Scorpion 3.0 consists mostly of a cheap, low-power MSP430 microcontroller managing the display, encoder, and a buck converter.

Designing something for off-the-grid usage means a few engineering challenges, and being in Paupa New Guinea, there are a few environmental considerations as well. [marius] is varnishing his 3D prints. No, it’s not going to be IP68 rated, but it helps. Making the Scorpion cheap is also a big consideration, most probably resulting in the choice of the MSP430.

It’s a great project, and an excellent entry to the Hackaday Prize. You can check out the demo video of the Scorpion below.

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LiPo Added to LEGO Power Functions Power Brick

LEGO’s Power Functions elements mostly consist of DC motors and the hardware to be driven by those motors like gears and wheels. They also include battery packs, usually a bunch of AA cells in a plastic box. One of the challenges of the system — for hackers, anyway — is interfacing with the product line’s plugs, which resemble 2×2 plates with power and ground connectors built in, designed to be impossible to connect in reverse. It’s difficult to make the physical shape of the plug, with the connectors right where they should be. This hurdle means you also pretty much have to use LEGO’s power boxes or take your chances with frying your components from an unregulated LiPo.

The LiPo Power Brick project serves as a DC-DC power supply, serving up constant 9 V output, with
over current protection limiting current to 3 A peak or 2 A continuous and over-discharge protection shutting down the power supply when it zeroes out. It can be used in conjunction with Sbrick smart Power Functions controllers. The SBrick can also source 3A per channel, which is more than any LEGO PF-compatible power supply can deliver.

The LiPo Power Brick is the same size as a standard 2×4 brick, allowing you to easily add it to your next project.

Killer USB Drive is Designed to Fry Laptops

[Dark Purple] recently heard a story about how someone stole a flash drive from a passenger on the subway. The thief plugged the flash drive into his computer and discovered that instead of containing any valuable data, it completely fried his computer. The fake flash drive apparently contained circuitry designed to break whatever computer it was plugged into. Since the concept sounded pretty amazing, [Dark Purple] set out to make his own computer-frying USB drive.

While any electrical port on a computer is a great entry point for potentially hazardous signals, USB is pretty well protected. If you short power and ground together, the port simply shuts off. Pass through a few kV of static electricity and TVS diodes safely shunt the power. Feed in an RF signal and the inline filtering beads dissipate most of the energy.

To get around or break through these protections, [Dark Purple]’s design uses an inverting DC-DC converter. The converter takes power from the USB port to charge a capacitor bank up to -110VDC. After the caps are charged, the converter shuts down and a transistor shunts the capacitor voltage to the data pins of the port. Once the caps are discharged, the supply fires back up and the cycle repeats until the computer is fried (typically as long as bus voltage is present). The combination of high voltage and high current is enough to defeat the small TVS diodes on the bus lines and successfully fry some sensitive components—and often the CPU. USB is typically integrated with the CPU in most modern laptops, which makes this attack very effective.

Thanks for the tip, [Pinner].

A Primer on Buck (and Boost) Converters

We all know that the reason the electrical system uses alternating current is because it’s easy to step the voltage up and down using a transformer, a feature which just isn’t possible with a DC system… or is it? Perhaps you’ve heard of mysterious DC-DC transformers before but never really wanted to look at the wizardry that makes them possible. Now, SparkFun Director of Engineering [Pete Dokter] has a tutorial which explains how these mysterious devices work.

Known as buck converters if they step the input voltage down and boost converters if they step the voltage up, [Pete] explains how these circuits exploit the properties of an inductor to resist changes in current flow. He goes into exquisite detail to explain how components like transistors or MOSFETs are used to switch the current flow to the inductor very rapidly, and just exactly what happens to the magnetic field which makes these devices possible.

The video gives a good amount of background knowledge if you’ve always wanted to understand these devices a little bit better. There are also a few projects floating around that exploit these devices, such as one that uses an AVR microcontroller to perform the switching for a small circuit, or another that uses the interesting properties of these circuits to follow the I-V curve of a solar panel to help charge a bank of batteries. The possibilities are endless!

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Building a power supply around a DC-DC converter

The EEVblog is on a roll with interesting topics lately. In the latest episode [Dave] takes us through the nitty-gritty of switch mode power supply design. Using DC-DC converter IC’s in not especially hard. The datasheets tend to have fairly good usage schematics but there’s always a bit of heartache that goes into figuring out which external components will make for an optimal design. Get your calculator out and, in the video after the break, he’ll walk you through choosing component values based on the formulas for the MC34063 converter chip.

[Dave] makes the point that this is an extremely common chip, available from several manufacturers, and often found in consumer electronics. In fact, the switchmode supply hack from last month was using a regulator based around the MC34063. So you can buy it or scavenge for it. One thing to note though, we checked Mouser and Digikey and they’re pretty short on these chips right now. Plan your projects accordingly.

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Adjustable breadboard supply


adafruit industries’ latest product is an adjustable breadboard power supply kit. We’ve seen breadboard supplies before, but like most of adafruit’s kits, this is the best design you’re going to encounter. It uses an MIC2941 voltage regulator instead of the more commonplace LM317. It has a very low dropout which means your output voltage can be much closer to the input voltage. Their example is using 3AAA or a Li-Ion battery for an output of 3.3V. Input can be through a barrel jack or terminal blocks. There is a selection switch for 3.3, 5, and adjustable voltage. Using the adjustment pot you can select an output voltage anywhere from 1.3V to within .5V of the 20V maximum input. The adjusted output voltage will remain the same even if you increase the input voltage. Like all of their kits, you can find schematics, assembly and usage instructions, on their project site.