How Current Shunts Work

Current. Too little of it, and you can’t get where you’re going, too much and your hardware’s on fire. In many projects, it’s desirable to know just how much current is being drawn, and even more desirable to limit it to avoid catastrophic destruction. The humble current shunt is an excellent way to do just that.

Ohm’s Law.

To understand current, it’s important to understand Ohm’s Law, which defines the relationship between current, voltage, and resistance. If we know two out of the three, we can calculate the unknown. This is the underlying principle behind the current shunt. A current flows through a resistor, and the voltage drop across the resistor is measured. If the resistance also is known, the current can be calculated with the equation I=V/R.

This simple fact can be used to great effect. As an example, consider a microcontroller used to control a DC motor with a transistor controlled by a PWM output. A known resistance is placed inline with the motor and, the voltage drop across it measured with the onboard analog-to-digital converter. With a few lines of code, it’s simple for the microcontroller to calculate the current flowing to the motor. Armed with this knowledge, code can be crafted to limit the motor current draw for such purposes as avoiding overheating the motor, or to protect the drive transistors from failure.

In fact, such strategies can be used in a wide variety of applications. In microcontroller projects you can measure as many currents as you have spare ADC channels and time. Whether you’re driving high power LEDs or trying to build protection into a power supply, current shunts are key to doing this.

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Modernizing Puerto Rico’s Grid

After two massive hurricanes impacted Puerto Rico three months ago, the island was left with extensive damage to its electrical infrastructure. Part of the problem was that the infrastructure was woefully inadequate to withstand a hurricane impact at all. It is possible to harden buildings and infrastructure against extreme weather, and a new plan to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid will address many of these changes that, frankly, should have been made long ago.

Among the upgrades to the power distribution system are improvements to SCADA systems. SCADA allows for remote monitoring and control of substations, switchgear, and other equipment which minimizes the need for crews to investigate problems and improves reliability. SCADA can also be used for automation on a large scale, in addition to the installation of other autonomous equipment meant to isolate faults and restore power quickly. The grid will get physical upgrades as well, including equipment like poles, wire, and substations that are designed and installed to a more rigorous standard in order to make them more wind- and flood-tolerant. Additional infrastructure will be placed underground as well, and a more aggressive tree trimming program will be put in place.

The plan also calls for some 21st-century improvements as well, including the implementation of “micro grids”. These micro grids reduce the power system’s reliance on centralized power plants by placing small generation facilities (generators, rooftop solar, etc) in critical areas, like at hospitals. Micro grids can also be used in remote areas to improve reliability where it is often impractical or uneconomical to service.

While hurricanes are inevitable in certain parts of the world, the damage that they cause is often exacerbated by poor design and bad planning. Especially in the mysterious world of power generation and distribution, a robust infrastructure is extremely important for the health, safety, and well-being of the people who rely on it. Hopefully these steps will improve Puerto Rico’s situation, especially since this won’t be the last time a major storm impacts the island.

Typhoon-proof Wind Turbine

While wind energy is rapidly increasing its market share across the world, wind turbines are not able to be constructed everywhere that they might be needed. A perfect example of this is Japan, where a traditional wind turbine would get damaged by typhoons. After the Fukushima disaster, though, one Japanese engineer committed himself to building a turbine specifically for Japan that can operate just fine within hurricane-force winds. (YouTube, embedded below.)

The “typhoon turbine” as it is known works via the Magnus effect, where a spinning object directs air around it faster on one side than on the other. This turbine uses three Magnus effect-driven cylinders with a blade on each one, which allows the turbine to harvest energy no matter how high the wind speeds are. The problem with hurricanes and typhoons isn’t just the wind, but also what the wind blows around. While there is no mention of its impact resistance it certainly looks like it has been built as robustly as possible.

Hopefully this turbine is able to catch on in Japan so they can reduce their reliance on other types of energy. Wind energy has been getting incredibly popular lately, including among hikers who carry a portable wind generator, and even among people with just a few pieces of scrap material.

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When the Grid Goes Dark

If you lived through the Y2K fiasco, you might remember a lot of hype with almost zero real-world ramifications in the end. As the calendar year flipped from 1999 to 2000 many forecast disastrous software bugs in machines controlling our banking and infrastructure. While this potential disaster didn’t quite live up to its expectations there was another major infrastructure problem, resulting in many blackouts in North America, that reared its head shortly after the new millennium began. While it may have seemed like Y2K was finally coming to fruition based on the amount of chaos that was caused, the actual cause of these blackouts was simply institutional problems with the power grid itself.

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How Energy Gets Where Its Needed

Even if you’re reading this on a piece of paper that was hand-delivered to you in the Siberian wilderness, somewhere someone had to use energy to run a printer and also had to somehow get all of this information from the energy-consuming information superhighway. While we rely on the electric grid for a lot of our daily energy needs like these, it’s often unclear exactly how the energy from nuclear fuel rods, fossil fuels, or wind and solar gets turned into electrons that somehow get into the things that need those electrons. We covered a little bit about the history of the electric grid and how it came to be in the first of this series of posts, but how exactly does energy get delivered to us over the grid? Continue reading “How Energy Gets Where Its Needed”

Weaponizing Elementary Science Experiments

[austiwawa] was playing around with one of those simple linear motors people build as friendly little science experiments. There’s an AA battery in the middle of a set of magnets. When you put it inside of a spring it zips around inside until you run out of spring or magic pixies in the battery.

Of course, the natural question arose, “How do I make it go fast!? Like fast!” After making explosion and woosh noises for a bit (like any good hacker would) he settled down and asked a more specific question. If I made the coil the barrel of an air gun, and then shot the battery out… would it go faster?

So, he built an air cannon. It took some ingenuity and duct tape, but he managed to line the barrel with a copper coil. After that he built an experimental set-up, because making something dangerous is only okay if it’s science. That’s the difference between sensible adults and children.

He shot three “dead” rounds through the cannon, and got a baseline result. These dead rounds were made so by placing the magnets at the improper polarity to forego the motion-boosting properties. Then he shot three live ones through. It went measurably faster! Neat!

What’s the silliest thing you’ve ever seen properly characterized? Let us know in the comments below.

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Etching Your Own Metal

It’s been said that with enough soap, one could blow up just about anything. A more modern interpretation of this thought is that with enough knowledge of chemistry, anything is possible. To that end, [Peter] has certainly been doing a good job of putting his knowledge to good use. He recently worked out a relatively inexpensive and easy way to etch metals using some chemistry skill and a little bit of electricity.

After preparing a set of stencils and cleaning the metal work surface, [Peter] sets his work piece in a salt solution. A metal bar is inserted in the other end of the bath, and both it and the work piece are connected to electrodes. The flow of electricity removes some metal from the exposed work surfaces, producing whatever patterns [Peter] wants.

One interesting thing that [Peter] found is that the voltage must stay under 6 volts. This is probably part of the reason it’s relatively easy to etch with even a wall wort. Above that, the iron work piece produces a different ion which can clog the work surface and create undesirable effects. Additionally, since his first experiments with this process he has upgraded the salt bath with magnetic stirrers. He also gets the best results in a very cold environment.

There are many other uses for etching metals, too. Creating your own printed circuit boards comes to mind, but there are plenty of other uses as well. What will you do with this technique?