A Switching Power Supply, 1940s-Style

“They don’t build ’em like they used to.” There’s plenty of truth to that old saw, especially when a switch-mode power supply from the 1940s still works with its original parts. But when said power supply is about the size of a smallish toddler and twice as heavy, building them like the old days isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

The power supply that [Ken Shirriff] dives into comes from an ongoing restoration of a vintage teletype we covered recently. In that post we noted the “mysterious blue glow” of the tubes in the power supply, which [Ken] decided to look into further. The tubes are Thyratrons, which can’t really be classified as vacuum tubes since they’re filled with various gasses. Thyratrons are tubes that use ionized gas – mercury vapor in this case – to conduct large currents. In this circuit, the Thyratrons are used as half-wave rectifiers that can be rapidly switched on and off by a feedback circuit. That keeps the output voltage fixed at the nominal 140V DC required by the teletype, with a surprisingly small amount of ripple. The video below is from a series on the entire restoration; this one is cued to where the power supply is powered up for the first time. It’s interesting to see the Thyratrons being switched at about 120 Hz when the supply is under load.

Cheers to [Ken] and his retrocomputing colleagues for keeping the old iron running. Whether the target of his ministrations is a 1974 scientific calculator or core memory from an IBM 1401, we always enjoy watching him work.

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Circuit VR: An (Almost) Practical Buck Converter

In the last installment of Circuit VR, we walked around a simplified buck converter. The main simplification was using a constant PWM signal. The result is that the output voltage is a fixed fraction of the input voltage. For a regulator, the pulse width will need to depend on the output voltage so that any changes in the output are self-correcting. So this time, we’ll make a regulator, although we’ll still use a few Spice elements you’d have to replace in a practical design. In particular, we’ll assume you can generate a triangle wave, which is easy enough, and produce a stable 2.5 V reference.

The idea is to take a voltage reference and compare it to the output. We’ll think of the difference between the two as an error voltage, and use a comparator combined with a triangle wave generator to produce a PWM signal that is proportional to the error, and thus works to hold the output voltage constant.

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Circuit VR: Simple Buck Converters

The first thing I ever built without a kit was a 5 V regulated power supply using the old LM309K. That’s a classic linear regulator like a 7805. While they are simple, they waste a lot of energy as heat, especially if the input voltage goes higher. While there are still applications where linear regulators make sense, they are increasingly being replaced by switching power supplies that are much more efficient. How do switchers work? Well, you buy a switching power supply IC, add an inductor and you are done. Class dismissed. Oh wait… while that might be the best way to do it from a cost perspective, you don’t really learn a lot that way.

In this installment of Circuit VR, we’ll look at a simple buck converter — that is a switching regulator that takes a higher voltage and produces a lower voltage. The first one won’t actually regulate, mind you, but we’ll add that in a future installment. As usual for Circuit VR, we’ll be simulating the designs using LT Spice.

Interestingly, LT Spice is made to design power supplies so it has a lot of Linear Technology parts in its library just for that purpose. However, we aren’t going to use anything more sophisticated than an op amp. For the first pass, we won’t even be using those.

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Buck Converter Efficiency

We always appreciate when someone takes the time to build something and then demonstrates what different design choices impact using the real hardware. Sure, you can work out the math and do simulations, but there’s something about having real hardware that makes it tangible. [Julian Ilett] recently posted two videos that fit this description. He built a buck converter and made measurements about its efficiency using different configurations.

The test setup is simple. He monitors the drive PWM with a scope and has power meters on the input and output. That makes it easy to measure the efficiency since it is just the ratio of the power output to input. You can see the two videos, below.

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Hybrid Bench Power Supply Can Also Hit the Road

Everyone needs a bench power supply, and rolling your own has almost become a rite of passage for hackers. For a long time, the platform of choice for such builds seemed to be the ATX power supply from a computer. While we certainly still see those builds, a lot of the action has switched to those cheap eBay programmable DC-DC converters, with their particolored digital displays.

This hybrid bench and portable power supply is a good example of what can be accomplished with these modules, and looks like it might turn out to be a handy tool. [Luke] centered his build around the DPS3003, a constant current and constant voltage buck converter that can take up to 40-VDC input and outputs up to 32 volts at 3 amps. In bench mode, the programmable module is fed from a mains-powered 24-volt switching supply. For portable work, an 18-volt battery from a Makita drill slips into a 3D-printed adapter on the top of the case. The printed part contains a commercial terminal [Luke] scored on eBay, but we’d bet the entire thing could be 3D printed. And no problem if you change power tool brands — just print another adapter.

Those little eBay power supply modules have proven to be an enabling technology, at least judging by the number of clever ways we’ve seen them used lately. From this combination bench PSU and soldering iron supply to a portable PSU perched atop a battery, these things are everywhere. Heck, you can even reflash the firmware and make them do your bidding.

[via Dangerous Prototypes]

A DIY 5V-3V Switching Converter in the Space of a TO-220 Package

We’re suckers for miniaturization projects. Stuff anything into a small enough package and you’ve probably got our attention. Make that something both tiny and useful, like this 5-volt to 3.3-volt converter in a TO-220 sized package, and that’s something to get excited about. It’s a switch mode power supply that takes the same space as a traditional linear regulator.

Granted, the heavy lifting in [Kevin Hubbard]’s diminutive buck converter is done by a PAM2305 DC-DC step-down converter chip which needs only a few supporting components. But the engineering [Kevin] put into this to squeeze everything onto a scrap of PCB 9-mm on a side is impressive. The largest passive on the board is the inductor in 0805. Everything else is in 0603, so you’ll be putting your SMD soldering skills to the test if you decide to make this. Check the video after the break for a speedrun through the hand soldering process.

The total BOM including the open-source PCB only runs a buck or two, and the end result is a supply with steady 750-mA output that can handle a 1-A surge for five seconds. We wonder if a small heatsink tab might not help that; along with some black epoxy potting, it would at least complete the TO-220 look.

[Kevin]’s Black Mesa Labs has a history of turning out interesting projects, from a legit video card for Arduino to a 100-watt hotplate for reflow work that’s the size of a silver dollar. We’re looking forward to whatever’s next — assuming we can see it.

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Nicely Engineered Boost Converter Powers Nixies from USB Charger

Love them or hate them, Nixies are here to stay. Their enduring appeal is due in no small part to the fact that they’re hardly plug-and-play; generating the high-voltage needed to drive the retro displays is part of their charm. But most Nixie power supplies seem to want 9 volts or more on the input side, which can make integrating them into the typical USB-powered microcontroller project difficult.

Fixing that problem is the idea behind [Mark Smith]’s 5-volt Nixie power supply. The overall goal is simple: 5 volts in, 170 volts out at 20 mA. But [Mark] paid special care to minimize the EMI output of the boost converter through careful design, and he managed to pack everything into a compact 14-cm² PCB. He subjected his initial design to a lot of careful experimentation to verify that he had met his design goals, and then embarked on a little tweaking mission in KiCad to trim the PCB’s footprint down by 27%. The three separate blog posts are well worth a read by anyone interested in learning about electronics design.

Now that [Mark] has his Nixie power supply, what will become of it? We can’t say for sure, but it’ll be a clock. It’s always a clock. Unless it’s a power meter or a speedometer.