Harvesting energy from the human body may sound scary, but fortunately a Matrix-style setup exists only as a cinematic fiction. Instead a typical path lies in external contraptions that use the body’s natural motions to drive a small generator, a bit of flexible piezo material, and so on. A popular target for harvesting the body’s kinetic energy is the knee joint, as this has a comparatively large range of motion and is fairly easy to use.
Thus a team from Hong Kong university opted to pick this part of the human anatomy for their experiment as well. While at first glance their results do not seem particularly impressive, with up to 1.6 mW of power generated, a look at their published results in the Applied Physics Letters journal showed their reasoning behind this setup. While one generator-based setup referenced produces on average 4.8 Watt of power, the device itself weighs 1.6 kg and increases the rate at which the person wearing it burns calories by a significant amount.
The goal for this device was to have a way to generate significant amounts of power without having the user exerting themselves more than usual. This led to them using flexible piezoelectric composites, resulting in a weight of just 307 grams, based upon two M8514-P2 pieces (Smart Materials Corp. manufacturer). Tests with volunteers on a treadmill show that users do not burn more calories than without.
As with all piezo materials, they can flex a bit, but not too much, so a lot of time and effort went into calculating the optimal bend radius in different usage scenarios. While around 1 mW of power is not massive, it is a reliable source of power for individuals who do any amount of walking during the day and doesn’t require any effort beyond strapping the device onto one’s legs.
At first glance, adding solar power to your project might seem easy. Get a photovoltaic panel, point it towards the big ball of burning gas in the sky, and off you go. But in reality, there’s a bit more to it than that. Especially when you’re trying to do something on a small scale. Without a rooftop full of panels pumping out power, you’ve got to take what you can get.
If you’re looking to power small electronic devices such as sensors with a single solar panel, [Vadim Panov] has put together a very concise write-up and video on building a low-cost solar harvester. It combines a relatively small photovoltaic panel, a charging circuit, and a battery for energy storage into a easily mountable package. He’s provided all the details necessary to create your own version, all you have to do now is come up with the application for it.
As far as the electronics go, this project is about as straightforward as it gets. The three watt panel is connected up to a simplistic charging circuit, which in turn feeds into a single 18650 cell. You might be wondering why a charge controller is even necessary in such a simple set up. One problem is that the output voltage of the panel is higher than that of the battery. You also need a blocking diode that will prevent the battery from discharging into the cell during the night or in cloudy conditions.
While the electronics might seem elementary to some readers, we think the 3D printed case alone is worth taking a look at. Not only has [Vadim] come up with a design that perfectly encloses the fragile solar panel and associated electronics, but in the video after the break, he also explains how the entire thing can be made waterproof with an epoxy coating. As 3D prints can have a tendency to be porous, this technique is definitely something you should file away mentally if you’ve been thinking of deploying a printed enclosure outdoors.
Whether you’re looking to power environmental sensors for as near a century as is technically possible or a portable OpenWRT router for mobile anonymity, these small solar panels hold a lot of promise if you know how to work around their limitations.
Continue reading “Soak Up The Sun With This 3D Printed Solar Harvester”
Jewelry making offers many opportunities for the electronics tinkerer, and on these pages we’ve seen some eye-catching creations using LEDs to great effect. They all have the same limitation though, it’s difficult to power something that tiny without a cumbersome battery. In seeking to solve that problem there have been a variety of inventive solutions tried, but they haven’t matched the approach of [Lloyd Konneker] who has turned the whole premise of most electronic jewelry on its head.
Instead of LEDs, the party trick of his earring is an electric motor that makes it spin, and instead of giving out light it takes it in as solar power. The motor is a pager alert device, the solar cells are repurposed photodiodes, and the power is stored in a capacitor until there is enough to drive the motor, at which point a MOSFET is triggered to do the work. It’s all made possible by a Texas Instruments TPS3839 supply voltage supervisor chip, and it works well enough to turn from time to time in bright sunlight. The prototype uses a conventional PCB, but a better version is in the works with a flexible board.
His write-up should be of interest to anyone with a need to learn about micropower circuits, as it goes into significant detail on their tuning and operation. Last year’s Hackaday Prize had an entire section devoted to energy harvesting which is well worth searching the site for, a typical example was this solar powered microcontroller board.
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.
[Mile]’s PTPM Energy Scavenger takes the scavenging idea seriously and is designed to gather not only solar power but also energy from temperature differentials, vibrations, and magnetic induction. The idea is to make wireless sensor nodes that can be self-powered and require minimal maintenance. There’s more to the idea than simply doing away with batteries; if the devices are rugged and don’t need maintenance, they can be installed in locations that would otherwise be impractical or awkward. [Mile] says that goal is to reduce the most costly part of any supply chain: human labor.
The prototype is working well with solar energy and supercapacitors for energy storage, but [Mile] sees potential in harvesting other sources, such as piezoelectric energy by mounting the units to active machinery. With a selectable output voltage, optional battery for longer-term storage, and a reference design complete with enclosure, the PPTM Energy Scavenger aims to provide a robust power solution for wireless sensor platforms.
Every scrap of power is precious when it comes to power harvesting, and working with such designs usually means getting cozy with a microcontroller’s low-power tricks and sleep modes. But in the case of the Ultra Low Power Energy Harvester design by [bobricius], the attached microcontroller doesn’t need to worry about managing power at all — as long as it can finish its job fast enough.
The idea is to use solar energy to fill a capacitor, then turn on the microcontroller and let it run normally until the power runs out. As a result, a microcontroller may only have a runtime in the range of dozens of microseconds, but that’s just fine if it’s enough time to, for example, read a sensor and transmit a packet. In early tests, [bobricius] was able to reliably transmit a 16-bit value wirelessly every 30 minutes using a small array of photodiodes as the power supply. That’s the other interesting thing; [bobricius] uses an array of BPW34 photodiodes to gather solar power. The datasheet describes them as silicon photodiodes, but they can be effectively used as tiny plastic-enclosed solar cells. They are readily available and can be arranged in a variety of configurations, while also being fairly durable.
Charging a capacitor then running a load for a short amount of time is one of the simplest ways to manage solar energy, and it requires no unusual components or fancy charge controllers. As long as the load doesn’t mind a short runtime, it can be an effective way to turn even indoor light into a figuratively free power source.
The SPINES (Self-Powered IoT Node for Environmental Sensing) Mote is a wireless IoT environmental sensor, but don’t let the neatly packed single PCB fool you into thinking it’s not hackable. [Macro Yau] specifically designed SPINES to be highly modular in order to make designing an energy harvesting sensor node an easier task. The way [Macro] sees it, there are two big hurdles to development: one is the energy harvesting itself, and the other is the software required to manage the use of every precious joule of that harvested energy.
[Macro] designed the single board SPINES Mote in a way that the energy harvesting portion can be used independently, and easily integrated into other designs. In addition, an Arduino library is being developed to make it easy for the power management to be done behind the scenes, allowing a developer to concentrate on the application itself. A solar-powered wireless sensor node is one thing, but helping people get their ideas up and running faster in the process is wonderful to see.