Storm Detector Modules: Dancing in the Rain

Earlier, we had covered setting up an AS3935 lightning detector module. This detector picks up radio emissions, then analyzes them to determine if they are a lightning strike or some other radio source. After collecting some data, it outputs the estimated distance to the incoming storm front.

But that only gets you halfway there. The device detects many non-lightning events, and the bare circuit board is lacking in pizzazz. Today I fix that by digging into the detector’s datasheet, and taking a quick trip to the dollar store buy a suitable housing. The result? A plastic plant that dances when it’s going to rain!
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Building a Portable Solar-Powered Spot Welder: Nearly Practical!

Last time, we covered storing and charging a 3000 Farad supercapacitor to build a solar-powered, portable spot welder. Since then, I’ve made some improvements to the charging circuit and gotten it running. To recap, the charger uses a DC-DC buck converter to convert a range of DC voltages down to 2.6 V. It can supply a maximum of 5 A though, and the supercapacitor will draw more than that if allowed to.

Capacitor charge current decreases with time as the capacitor charges. Source: Hyperphysics

After some failed attempts, I had solved that by passing the buck converter output through a salvaged power MOSFET. A spare NodeMCU module provided pulse width modulated output that switched the MOSFET on for controlled periods of time to limit the charging current. That was fine, but a constant-voltage charger really isn’t the right way to load up a capacitor. Because the capacitor plates build up a voltage as it charges, the current output from a constant-voltage charger is high initially, but drops to a very low rate in the end.

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Imaging The Neighborhood with Solar Panels

Like many people who have a solar power setup at home, [Jeroen Boeye] was curious to see just how much energy his panels were putting out. But unlike most people, it just so happens that he’s a data scientist with a deep passion for programming and a flair for visualizations. In his latest blog post, [Jeroen] details how his efforts to explain some anomalous data ended with the discovery that his solar array was effectively acting as an extremely low-resolution camera.

It all started when he noticed that in some months, the energy produced by his panels was not following the expected curve. Generally speaking, the energy output of stationary solar panels should follow a clear bell curve: increasing output until the sun is in the ideal position, and then decreasing output as the sun moves away. Naturally cloud cover can impact this, but cloud cover should come and go, not show up repeatedly in the data.

Expected versus actual power output.

[Jeroen] eventually came to realize that the dips in power generation were due to two large trees in his yard. This gave him the idea of seeing if he could turn his solar panels into a rudimentary camera. In theory, if he compared the actual versus expected output of his panels at any given time, the results could be used as “pixels” in an image.

He started by creating a model of the ideal energy output of his panels throughout the year, taking into account not only obvious variables such as the changing elevation of the sun, but also energy losses through atmospheric dispersion. This model was then compared with the actual power output of his solar panels, and periods of low efficiency were plotted as darker dots to represent an obstruction. Finally, the plotted data was placed over a panoramic image taken from the perspective of the solar panels. Sure enough, the periods of low panel efficiency lined up with the trees and buildings that are in view of the panels.

We’ve seen plenty of solar hacks, but this one has to be something of a first. Usually people are more worried about maximizing efficiency or tracking the sun with them.

Tiny Electric Motor Runs on Power from an LED

If you were not aware, LEDs can also work in reverse: they deliver tiny amounts of current, in the microamp range, when illuminated. If you look on YouTube you can find several videos of solar panels built with arrays of LEDs, but powering an electric motor with a single 3 mm LED is something that we’ve never seen before. [Slider2732] built a small electric motor that happily runs from a green LED in sunlight.

The motor uses four coils of 1,000 ohms each. Using coils with many turns of very fine wire helps to draw less current while keeping an appropriate magnetic field for the motor to run. To keep friction at a minimum, the rotor uses a needle that hangs from a magnet. Four neodymium magnets around the rotor are periodically pushed by the coils, generating rotation. A simple two-transistor circuit takes care of the synchronization and yes, the motor does run on the four microamps provided by the LED, and runs pretty well.

Building motors is definitely an enjoyable activity, these small pulse motors can be built in just a couple of hours. You can use coils with just a few tens of turns which are much more easy to make but of course you will need something more than four microamps! The nice part of making an ultralow current motor like this is that it can run for a very long time on a tiny battery or even a capacitor, we invite you to try building one.

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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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What Voltage for the All-DC House?

The war of the currents was fairly decisively won by AC. After all, whether you’ve got 110 V or 230 V coming out of your wall sockets, 50 Hz or 60 Hz, the whole world agrees that the frequency of oscillation should be strictly greater than zero. Technically, AC won out because of three intertwined facts. It was more economical to have a few big power plants rather than hundreds of thousands of tiny ones. This meant that power had to be transmitted over relatively long distances, which calls for higher voltages. And at the time, the AC transformer was the only way viable to step up and down voltages.

No, not that AC/DC

But that was then. We’re right now on the cusp of a power-generation revolution, at least if you believe the solar energy aficionados. And this means two things: local power that’s originally generated as DC. And that completely undoes two of the three factors in AC’s favor. (And efficient DC-DC converters kill the transformer.) No, we don’t think that there’s going to be a switch overnight, but we wouldn’t be surprised if it became more and more common to have two home electrical systems — one remote high-voltage AC provided by the utilities, and one locally generated low-voltage DC.

Why? Because most devices these days use low-voltage DC, with the notable exception of some big appliances. Batteries store DC. If more and more homes have some local DC generation capability, it stops making sense to convert the local DC to AC just to plug in a wall wart and convert it back to DC again. Hackaday’s [Jenny List] sidestepped a lot of this setup and went straight for the punchline in her article “Where’s my low-voltage DC wall socket?” and proposed a few solutions for the physical interconnects. But we’d like to back it up for a minute. When the low-voltage DC revolution comes, what voltage is it going to be?

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Solar Controller Reverse Engineered In Both Directions

[Jared Sanson] has a solar power setup on his beach house, consisting of 6 panels and a 24V battery bank, supplied by Outback Inc. Their chargers and inverters pair over a seemingly proprietary connection with a controller known as the MATE. The MATE has a standard serial output which gives some details about the operation, but [Jared] wasn’t getting the detailed information they could get from the controller’s screen. This meant it was time to reverse engineer the proprietary connection instead, which [Jared] calls MateNET.

The controller interfaces with the chargers over a Cat5 cable. [Jared] initially suspected RS-485, but it turned out to be regular serial at 0-24V logic levels, at 9600 baud, 9n1. To figure out the pinout, [Jared] went through the MATE circuitry with a fine-toothed comb, discovering an ATMEGA32. Since both the MATE’s user output & its connection to the other equipment are both serial, a logic mux is used to split the ATMEGA32’s single UART between the two serial connections. With the physical layer sorted, it was time to figure out how the protocol worked.

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