High Efficiency, Open-Sourced MPPT Solar Charger

A few years ago, [Lukas Fässler] needed a solar charge controller and made his own, which he has been improving ever since. The design is now mature, and the High Efficiency MPPT Solar Charger is full of features like data logging, boasts a 97% efficiency over a range of 1 to 75 Watts, and can be used as a standalone unit or incorporated as a module into other systems. One thing that became clear to [Lukas] during the process was that a highly efficient, feature-rich, open-sourced hardware solution for charge controllers just didn’t exist, at least not with the features he had in mind.

Data logging and high efficiency are important for a charge controller, because batteries vary in their characteristics as they recharge and the power generated from things like solar panels varies under different conditions and loads. An MPPT (Maximum Point Power Tracking) charger is a smart unit optimized to handle all these changing conditions for maximum efficiency. We went into some detail on MPPT in the past, and after three years in development creating a modular and configurable design, [Lukas] hopes no one will have to re-invent the wheel when it comes to charge controllers.

AMSAT MPPT Goes To Infinity And Beyond

AMSAT, the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation, joined forces with students from Rochester Institute of Technology to create a MPPT attached to a Fox-1B CubeSat. It successfully launched into orbit on November 18th strapped to the back of a Delta II rocket. This analog MPPT, or Maximum Power Point Tracker, is used for optimizing the draw of a power cell in correspondence to the output of solar panels on the 10cm x 10cm satellite. In a nutshell, this works by matching the voltage of the two together. If you haven’t gotten a chance to play around with one of these first hand, Hackaday’s own [Elliot Williams] wrote up a thorough explanation of the glorious MPPT’s efficiency.

This little guy is currently hurtling along in an orbit every 90 minutes. During each of these elliptical trajectories, the satellite undergoes brutal heating and cooling cycles. The team calculated that this package will undergo a total of 29,200 orbits around Earth during its 5 year mission. This means that there are 29,200 tests for it to crack — quite literally — under pressure. To add another level of difficulty, the undergrad team didn’t have funding for automated board assembly. This meant that they had to hand solder over 400 micro components onto this board, adding additional human error to be accounted for in the likelihood of a failure. But so far, this puppy is going strong. This truly shows the struggles that can be overcome with a little elbow grease, hard work, and plain ‘ole good engineering.

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Are You Down With MPPT? (Yeah, You Know Me.)

Solar cells have gotten cheaper and cheaper, and are becoming an economically viable source of renewable energy in many parts of the world. Capturing the optimal amount of energy from a solar panel is a tricky business, however. First there are a raft of physical prerequisites to operating efficiently: the panel needs to be kept clean so the sun can reach the cells, the panel needs to point at the sun, and it’s best if they’re kept from getting too hot.

Along with these physical demands, solar panels are electrically finicky as well. In particular, the amount of power they produce is strongly dependent on the electrical load that they’re presented, and this optimal load varies depending on how much illumination the panel receives. Maximum power-point trackers (MPPT) ideally keep the panel electrically in the zone even as little fluffy clouds roam the skies or the sun sinks in the west. Using MPPT can pull 20-30% more power out of a given cell, and the techniques are eminently hacker-friendly. If you’ve never played around with solar panels before, you should. Read on to see how!

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Maximizing A Solar Panel

Solar panels seem like simple devices: light in and electricity out, right? If you don’t care about efficiency, it might be that simple, but generally you do care about efficiency. If you are, say, charging a battery, you’d like to get every watt out of the panel. The problem is that the battery may not draw all the available current, basically leaving capacity on the table.

The solution is a technique called MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking). Despite sounding like a Microsoft presentation add on, MPPT uses a DC to DC converter to present a maximum load to the solar cell while providing the desired current and voltage to the load. MPPT is what [Abid Jamal] implemented to manage his solar charger.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Arduino MPPT Controller

Imagine you’re building a small solar installation. The naive solution would be grabbing a solar panel from Horror Freight, getting a car battery and AC inverter, and hoping everything works. This is the dumb solution. To get the most out of a solar you need to match the voltage of the solar cell to the voltage of the battery. How do you do that? With [Debasish]’s entry for The Hackaday Prize, an Arduino MPPT Solar Charge Controller.

This Maximum Power Point Tracker uses a buck converter to step down the voltage from the solar cell to the voltage of the battery. It’s extremely efficient and every proper solar installation will need a charge controller that does something similar.

For his MPPT, [Debasish] is using an Arduino Nano for all the math, a DC to DC buck converter, and a few MOSFETs. Extremely simple, but [Debasish] is connecting the entire controller to the Internet with an ESP8266 module. It’s a great example of building something for much less than it would cost to buy the same thing, and a great example for something that has a chance at making the world a little better.

 


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Solar Charge Controller Improves Efficiency Of Solar Panels

The simplest and easiest way to charge a battery with a solar panel is to connect the panel directly to the battery. Assuming the panel has a diode to prevent energy from flowing through it from the battery when there’s no sunlight. This is fairly common but not very efficient. [Debasish Dutta] has built a charge controller that addresses the inefficiencies of such a system though, and was able to implement maximum power point tracking using an Arduino.

Maximum power point tracking (MPPT) is a method that uses PWM and a special DC-DC converter to match the impedance of the solar panel to the battery. This means that more energy can be harvested from the panel than would otherwise be available. The circuit is placed in between the panel and the battery and regulates the output voltage of the panel so it matches the voltage on the battery more closely. [Debasish] reports that an efficiency gain of 30-40% can be made with this particular design.

This device has a few bells and whistles as well, including the ability to log data over WiFi, an LCD display to report the status of the panel, battery, and controller, and can charge USB devices. This would be a great addition to any solar installation, especially if you’ve built one into your truck.

This is [Debasish]’s second entry to The Hackaday Prize. We covered his first one a few days ago. That means only one thing: start a project and start documenting it on hackaday.io