Perovskites: Not Just For Solar Cells Anymore

If you’ve been around long enough, you’ll know there’s a long history of advances in materials science that get blown far out of proportion by both the technical and the popular media. Most of the recent ones seem to center on the chemistry of carbon, particularly graphene and nanotubes. Head back a little in time and superconductors were all the rage, and before that it was advanced ceramics, semiconductors, and synthetic diamonds. There’s always some new miracle material to be breathlessly and endlessly reported on by the media, with hopeful tales of how one or the other will be our salvation from <insert catastrophe du jour here>.

While there’s no denying that each of these materials has led to huge advancements in science, industry, and the quality of life for billions, the development cycle from lab to commercialization is generally a tad slower than the press would have one believe. And so when a new material starts to gain traction in the headlines, as perovskites have recently, we feel like it’s a good opportunity to take a close look, to try to smooth out the ups and downs of the hype curve and manage expectations.

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Give Your Solar Garden Lights A Color Changing LED Upgrade

White LEDs were the technological breakthrough that changed the world of lighting, now they are everywhere. There’s no better sign of their cost-effective ubiquity than the dollar store solar garden light: a complete unit integrating a white LED with its solar cell and battery storage. Not content with boring white lights on the ground, [Emily] decided to switch up their colors with a mix of single-color LEDs and dynamic color-changing LEDs, then hung them up high as colorful solar ornaments.

The heart of these solar devices is a YX8018 chip (or one of its competitors.) While the sun is shining, solar power is directed to charge up the battery. Once the solar cell stops producing power, presumably because the sun has gone down, the chip starts acting as a boost converter (“Joule thief”) pushing a single cell battery voltage up high enough to drive its white LED. Changing that LED over to a single color LED is pretty straightforward, but a color changing LED adds a bit of challenge. The boost converter deliver power in pulses that are too fast for human eyes to pick up but the time between power pulses is long enough to cause a color-changing circuit to reset itself and never get beyond its boot-up color.

The hack to keep a color-changing LED’s cycle going is to add a capacitor to retain some charge between pulses, and a diode to prevent that charge from draining back into the rest of the circuit. A ping-pong ball serves as light diffuser, and the whole thing is hung up using a 3D-printed sheath which adds its own splash of color.

Solar garden lights are great basis for a cheap and easy introduction to electronics hacking. We’ve seen them turn into LED throwies, into a usable flashlight, or even to power an ATTiny microcontroller.

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Solar Circuit Sculpture Pumms The Night Away

A word of warning: Google for the definition of the word “pummer” at your own risk. Rest assured that this beautiful solar-powered circuit sculpture fits the only definition of pummer that we care to deal with.

For the unfamiliar, a pummer is a device from the BEAM style of robotics, a sort of cyborg plant that absorbs solar energy during the day and turns it into a gently pulsating light that “pumms” away the dark hours.

[Mohit Bhoite]’s take on the pummer is an extraordinary model of a satellite executed mainly in brass rod. His attention to detail on the framework boggles our minds; we could work for days on a brass rod and never achieve the straight lines and perfect corners he did. The wings support two solar cells, while the hull of the satellite holds a dead-bugged 74HC240 octal buffer/line-driver chip and all the other pumm-enabling components. A one farad supercap – mounted to look like a dish antenna – is charged during the day and a single LED beacon blinks into the night.

No schematic is provided, but there are probably enough closeup shots to reverse engineer this, which actually sounds like a fun exercise. (Or you can cheat and fetch the PDF copy of the old Make magazine article that inspired him.)

Hats off to [Mohit] for a top-notch circuit sculpture. We’ve seen similarly detailed and well-executed sculptures from him before; something tells us this won’t be the last.

Thanks to [Varun Reddy] for the tip.

DIY Vs. Commercially Made Solar Panel

The price of commercially made solar panels on eBay is around $1 per watt and have been for a few years, but the price of individual solar cells are likewise at a low price per watt, around $0.48.  Looking at those prices, it’s tempting to say that it’d be cheaper to just buy the solar cells and put together your own panels. But is it? Simply adding up all the costs might seem like a good way to tell, but you’d need to make a panel to really see what works and what doesn’t.

Part US$ Euros €
solar cells 53 45
aluminum U-channel 20 17
plexiglass 43 37
adhesive 8 7
clear epoxy resin 40 34
Total $164 140€

And so [GreatScott] did just that, with his own side-by-side comparison. He made a 100-watt solar panel and mounted it on his roof beside his commercially produced 100-watt one and compared their output.

The cost of his DIY panel rose quickly. To make a somewhat comparable panel he needed to buy aluminum U-channels, clear epoxy resin, and more. Shown here is the breakdown of his costs.

His commercial 100 watt solar panel would cost him $103 today (87.90€). Compare that to his $164 DIY panel. Also, his DIY one likely won’t weather as well as the commercial one and may not handle high temperatures as well either. You can see the results of his testing in the video below, along with all his construction steps.

Another component open to DIYers in a solar system is the charge controller which takes the solar panel’s output and uses it to charge the battery, with added features like MPPT. Check out this DIY charge controller with MPPT and WiFi for data logging.

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Energy Harvesting Design Doesn’t Need Sleep

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.

Home Brew Solar Cells For The Chemically Curious

The idea of making your own semiconductors from scratch would be more attractive if it weren’t for the expensive equipment and noxious chemicals required for silicon fabrication. But simple semiconductors can be cooked up at home without anything fancy, and they can actually yield pretty good results.

Granted, [Simplifier] has been working on the method detailed in the video below for about a year, and a look at his post on copper oxide thin-film solar cells reveals a meticulous approach to optimize everything. He started with regular window glass, heated over a propane burner and sprayed with a tin oxide solution to make it conductive while remaining transparent. The N-type layer was sprayed on next in the form of zinc oxide doped with magnesium. Copper oxide, the P-type layer, was electroplated on next, followed by a quick dip in copper sulfide to act as another transparent conductor. A conductive compound of sodium silicate and graphite was layered on the back to form the electrical contacts. The cell worked pretty well — 525 mV open circuit voltage and 6.5 mA short-circuit current. Not bad for home brewed.

If you want to replicate [Simplifier]’s methods, you’ll find his ample documentation of his site. Of course, if you yearn for DIY silicon semiconductors, there’s a fab for that, too.

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Making Solar Cells

We will admit that it is unlikely you have enough gear in your basement to make a solar cell using these steps. However, it is interesting to see how a bare silicon wafer becomes a solar cell. If you’ve seen ICs going through fabrication, you’ll see a lot of similarities, but there are some differences.

The process calls for a silicon wafer, some ovens, spin coaters, photolithography equipment, and a dice saw, among other things. Oh, you probably also need a clean room. Maybe you should just buy your solar cells off the shelf, but it is still interesting to see how they are made.

Modern solar cells have some extra structures to improve their efficiency, but the cells in this video are pretty garden-variety. For example, some experimental cells use multiple layers of active devices, each tuned to absorb a different wavelength of light.

If you really want to make your own, there’s another process where you can start with some copper and wind up with a kind of solar cell that uses a copper-based semiconductor material. But don’t be fooled into thinking that making the silicon variety is totally out of reach to hackers, we’ve seen [Sam Zeloof] pull it off.

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