A Lot Of Volts For Not A Lot

There was a time when high voltage in electronic devices was commonplace, and projects driving some form of vacuum or ionisation tube simply had to make use of a mains transformer from a handy tube radio or similar. In 2019 we don’t often have the need for more than a few volts, so when a Geiger–Müller tube needs a bit of juice, we’re stumped. [David Christensen] approached this problem by creating his own inverter, which can produce up to 1 kV from a 12 V supply.

Instead of opting for a flyback supply he’s taken a traditional step-up approach, winding his own transformer on a ferrite core. It has a centre-tapped primary which he drives in push-pull with a couple of MOSFETS, and on its secondary is a voltage multiplier chain. The MOSFETs take their drive at between 25 kHz and 50 kHz from a 555 timer circuit, and there is no feedback circuit.

It’s fair to say that this is a somewhat hair-raising circuit, particularly as he claims that it is capable of delivering that 1 kV at 20 W. It’s usual for high-voltage supplies driving very high impedance loads to incorporate a set of high-value resistors on their outputs to increase their internal impedance such that their danger is reduced. We’d thus exercise extreme care around this device, though we can see a lot of value in his description of the transformer winding.

We can’t criticise this circuit too much though, because some of us have been known to produce far hackier high voltage PSUs.

ESP8266 Upgrade Gives IKEA LEDs UDP Superpowers

It can be difficult to resist the impulse buy. You see something interesting, the price is right, and even though you know you should do your research first, you end up putting it in your cart anyway. That’s how [Tobias Girstmair] ended up being the not-so proud owner of a LEDBERG RGB LED strip from IKEA, and what eventually pushed him to replace wimpy original controller with an ESP8266.

So what was the problem with the original controller? If you can believe it, it was incapable of producing white light. When IKEA says an LED is multi-color, they apparently mean it’s only multi-color. A quick check of the reviews online seem to indicate that the white version is sold as a different SKU that apparently looks the same externally and has confused more than a few purchasers.

Rather than having to pick one or the other, [Tobias] decided he would replace the original controller with an ESP-03, hoping that would give him granular enough control over the LEDs to coax a suitably white light out of them. He didn’t want to completely start from scratch, so one of the first decisions he made was to reuse the existing PCB and MOSFETs. Some handy test points on the PCB allowed him to hook the digital pins of the ESP right to the red, blue, and green LED channels.

Then it was just a matter of coming up with the software. To keep things simple, [Tobias] decided to create a “dumb” controller that simply sets the LED color and intensity according to commands it receives over a simplified UDP protocol. Anything beyond that, such as randomized colors or special effects, is done with scripts that run on his computer and fire off the appropriate UDP commands. This also means he can manually control his newly upgraded LEDBERG strips from basically anything that can generate UDP packets, such as an application on his Android phone.

It might not be the most robust implementation we’ve ever seen, but all things considered, it looks as though this modification could be a pretty good way to get some cheap network controlled RGB lighting in your life.

An Impeccably Designed High-Speed LED Flash

If you want to take a picture of something fast, and we mean really fast, you need to have a suitably rapid flash to illuminate it. A standard camera flash might be good enough to help capture kids running around the back yard at night, but it’s not going to do you much good if you’re trying to get a picture of a bullet shattering a piece of glass. For that you’ll need something that can produce microsecond flashes, allowing you to essentially “freeze” motion.

You can buy a flash that fast, but they aren’t common, and they certainly aren’t cheap. [td0g] thought he could improve on the situation by developing his own microsecond flash, and he was kind enough to not only share it with the world, but create a fantastically detailed write-up that takes us through the entire design and construction process. Even if you aren’t in the market for a hyper-fast flash for your camera, this is a fascinating look at how you can build an extremely specialized piece of gear out of relatively common hardware components.

So what goes into a fast LED flash? Rather unsurprisingly, the build starts with high-quality LEDs. After some research, [td0g] went with an even dozen CREE CXA2530 arrays at just shy of $7 USD each. Not exactly cheap, but luckily the rest of the hardware is pretty garden variety stuff, including a ATMega328P microcontroller, some MOSFETs, and a TC4452 driver. He did pack in some monstrous 400 V 10μf capacitors, but has since realized they were considerably overkill and says he would swap them out if doing it all over again.

To make development easier (and less costly, should anything go wrong), [td0g] designed the flash so that the LEDs are arranged in banks of three which can be easily removed or swapped in the 3D printed case. Each trio of LEDs is in a removable “sled” that also holds the corresponding capacitor and MOSFET. Then it was just a matter of getting the capacitors charged up and safely dumping their energy into the banks of LEDs without frying anything. Simple.

At this point, the astute reader is probably thinking that a high speed flash is worthless without an equally fast way of triggering it. You’d be right, but [td0g] already figured that part. A couple years back we covered his incredible ballistic chronometer which is being used as a sensor to fire off his new flash.

Driving A 16×2 LCD With Voltage Modulation

The basic 16×2 LCD is an extremely popular component that we’ve seen used in more projects than we could possibly count. Part of that is because modern microcontrollers make it so easy to work with; if you’ve got an I2C variant of the display, it only takes four wires to drive it. That puts printing a line of text on one of these LCDs a step or two above blinking an LED on a digital pin on the hierarchy of beginner’s electronics projects.

What’s that? Even four wires is too many? In that case, you might be interested in this hack from [Vinod] which shows how you can drive the classic 16×2 with data and power on the same pair of wires. You’ll still need a microcontroller “backpack” for the LCD to interpret the modulated voltage, but if you’ve got an application for a simple remote display, this is definitely worth checking out.

The basic idea is to “blink” the 5 V line so quick that a capacitor on the LCD side can float the electronics over the dips in voltage. As long as one of the pins of the microcontroller is connected to the 5 V line before the capacitor, it will be able to pick up when the line goes low. With a high enough data rate and a large enough capacitor as a buffer, you’re well on the way to encoding your data to be displayed.

For the transmitting side, [Vinod] is using a Python script on his computer that’s sending out the text for the LCD over a standard USB to UART converter. That’s fed into a small circuit put together on a scrap of perfboard that triggers a MOSFET off of the UART TX line.

We actually covered the theory behind this technique years ago, but it’s always interesting to see somebody put together a real-world example. There might not be too many practical uses for this trick in the era of dirt-cheap microcontrollers bristling with I/O, but it might make a fun gag at your hackerspace.

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This Super Realistic LED Candle Is Smoking Hot

Over the last few years, LED candles have become increasingly common; and for good reason. From a distance a decent LED candle is a pretty convincing facsimile for the real thing, providing a low flickering glow without that annoying risk of burning your house down. But there’s something to be said for the experience of a real candle; such as that puff of fragrant smoke you get when you blow one out.

Which is why [Keith] set out on an epic three year quest to build the most realistic LED candle possible, with a specific focus on the features that commercial offerings lack. So not only does it use real wax as a diffuser for the LEDs, but you’re able to “light” it with an actual match. It even ejects a realistic bit of smoke when its microphone detects you’ve blown into it. Ironically, its ability to generate smoke means it doesn’t completely remove the possibility of it setting your house on fire if left unattended, but we suppose that’s the price you pay for authenticity.

As you might have gathered by now, [Keith] is pretty serious about this stuff, and has gone to great lengths to document his candle’s long development process. If you’d care to build a similar candle, his written documentation as well as the video after the break will certainly get you on the right track. He’s even broken the design down into “milestones” of increasing complexity, so for example if you don’t care about the smoking aspect of the candle you can just skip that part of the build.

So what did [Keith] put into his ultimate LED candle? In the most basic form, the electronics consist of a Arduino Pro Mini and a chunk of RGB WS2812B strip holding six LEDs. Add in an IR sensor if you want the candle to be able to detect the presence of a match, and a microphone if you want to be able to blow into the candle to turn it off. Things only get tricky if you want to go full smoke, and let’s be honest, you want to go full smoke.

To safely produce a puff of fragrant smoke, [Keith] is using a coil of 28 gauge wire wrapped around the wick of a “Tiki Torch”, and a beefy enough power supply and MOSFET to get it nice and hot. The wick is injected with his own blend of vegetable glycerin and aromatic oil, and when the coil is fired up it produces an impressive amount of light gray smoke that carries the scent of whatever oil you add. Even if you’re not currently on the hunt for the ultimate electronic candle, it’s a neat little implementation that could be used come Halloween.

You might be surprised to learn that LED candles are a rather popular project within the hacking community. From the exceptionally simple to the exceedingly complex, we’ve seen an impressive array of electronic candles over the years. Perfect for setting the mood when listening to the smooth sounds of the latest Hackaday podcast episode. Continue reading “This Super Realistic LED Candle Is Smoking Hot”

Old Meets New In 3D Printed Telegraph

We often think of 3D printing as a way to create specific components in our builds, everything from some hard-to-find little sprocket to a custom enclosure. More and more of the projects that grace the pages of Hackaday utilize at least a few 3D printed parts, even if the overall build itself is not something we’d necessarily consider a “printed” project. It’s the natural progression of a technology which at one time was expensive and complex becoming increasingly available to the maker and hacker.

But occasionally we see 3D printing used not to create new devices, but recreate old ones. A perfect example is the almost entirely 3D printed telegraph system created by [Matt]. Projects like this help bring antiquated technology back to a modern audience, and can be an excellent educational tool. Showing someone a diagram of how the telegraph worked is one thing, but being able to run off a copy on your 3D printer and putting a working model in their hands is quite another.

[Matt] acknowledges that he’s hardly the first person to 3D print a telegraph key, but says that he’d never seen the complete system done before. The key is perhaps the component most people are familiar with from film and old images, but alone it’s really nothing more than a momentary switch. To actually put it to use, you need a telegraph sounder on the receiving end to “play” the messages.

The sounder is a somewhat more complex device than the key, and uses an electromagnet to pull down a lever and produce an audible clicking noise. In the most basic case, the coil is directly connected to the key, but in a modern twist [Matt] has added a MOSFET into the circuit so the electromagnet is triggered locally within the sounder. This prevents sparks from eroding the contacts in the key, and alleviates problems associated with current loss over long wire runs.

We’ve previously seen 3D printing used to revive vintage games which are no longer available such as “The Amazing Dr. Nim”, and how modern techniques such as additive manufacturing can help put World War II aircraft back in the air. While there was never much question that 3D printing would be a big part of our future, it would seem to be taking a fairly active role in preserving our past as well.

Chris Gammell Talks Circuit Toolboxes

Chris Gammell wants to know: What’s in your circuit toolbox?

Personally, mine is somewhat understocked. I do know that in one of my journals, probably from back in the 1980s, I scribbled down a schematic of a voltage multiplier I had just built, with the classic diode and capacitor ladder topology. I probably fed it from a small bell transformer, and I might have gotten a hundred volts or so out of it. I was so proud at the time that I wrote it down for posterity with the note, “I made this today!”

I think the whole point of Chris’ 2018 Hackaday Superconference talk is precisely what I was trying to get at when I made my “discovery” — we all have circuits that just work for us, and the more you have, the better. Most readers will recognize Chris from such venues as The Amp Hour, a weekly podcast he hosts with Dave Jones, and his KiCad tutorial videos. Chris has been in electrical engineering for nearly twenty years now, and he’s picked up a collection of go-to circuits that keep showing up in his designs and making life easier, which he graciously shared with the crowd.

As Chris points out, it’s the little circuits that can make the difference. Slide after slide of his talk had schematics with no more than a handful of components in them, covering applications from dead-simple LED power indicators and switch debouncing to IO expansion using a 74HC595. And as any sensible engineer might, Chris’ toolbox includes a good selection of power protection circuits, everything from polarity reversal protection with a MOSFET and a zener to a neat little high-side driver shutoff using a differential amp and an optoisolator.

My favorite part of the talk was the “Codeless” section — things you can do with discrete components that make microcontroller circuits better. We see the “You could have used a 555!” comments from readers all the time, and Chris agrees, at least to a point. He aptly notes that microcontrollers can wake up with their IO pins in unknown states, and offered several circuits to keep the potential for mischief at bay, such as Schmitt trigger power-on reset or the simple addition of a pull-down resistor to default a MOSFET to a safe state. There’s a lot that code can accomplish, but adding just a few parts can make a circuit much safer and useful.

Chris acknowledges that in any audience, everyone is always at different places with regard to their hardware learning curve, so what’s old hat to someone might be a fresh revelation to another. Still, everything is new to someone at some point, and that’s often the best time to write it down. That’s what I did all those years ago with that voltage multiplier, and it never left me as a result. It’s good advice, and if you haven’t started building your own circuit toolbox, now’s the time.

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