Dark Absorbing Diodes Are No DAD Joke

We will confess that the authors of the Applied Physics Letters article “Experimental Demonstration of Energy Harvesting from the Sky using the Negative Illumination Effect of a Semiconductor Photodiode” never used the acronym DAD or the phrase “dark absorbing diode.” But we thought it was too good to pass up. The research work uses a type of diode to generate small amounts of power from darkness. Admittedly, the amount of power is small, but it is still an important result and could result in — another coined phrase — negative solar cells providing energy by taking advantage of the temperature differential between the cell and the night sky.

In theory — and with no atmosphere — the technique could only result in about 4 watts per square meter. Not only is this low compared to a solar panel’s 100 to 200 watts per square meter, but it is also far from the prototype’s 64 nanowatts per square meter. Clearly, this technology has a ways to go to become practical.

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Dollar Store Garden Lights As ATtiny Power Supplies

Solar garden lights are just another part of the great trash pile of our age, electronics so cheap as to be disposable. Most of you probably have a set lurking somewhere at home, their batteries maybe exhausted. Internally though they are surprisingly interesting devices. A solar cell, a little boost converter chip, and a little NiCd battery alongside the LED. These are components with potential, as [Randy Elwin] noted with a mind to his ATtiny85 projects.

The YX805A chip he references in his write-up is one of several similar chips that function in effect as joule thieves, extending the available charge in the battery to keep the LED active as long as possible when their solar panel is generating nothing, and turning it off in daylight when the panel can charge. Their problem is that they are designed as joule thieves rather than regulators, so using them as a microcontroller PSU without modification can result in overvoltage.

His solution is to use the device’s solar panel input as a feedback pin from his ATtiny, allowing the microcontroller to keep an eye on its supply voltage and enable or disable the converter as necessary while it keeps running from the reservoir capacitor. Meanwhile the solar panel now charges the NiCd cell through a single diode. It’s not perfect and maybe needs a clamp or something, he notes that there is a condition in which the supply can peak at 8 volts, a level which would kill an ATtiny. But still, we like simple hacks on dollar store parts, so it’s definitely worth further investigation.

This isn’t the first garden light hack we’ve shown you, there was this flashlight, and some LED hacks.

Solar light picture: Leon Brooks [Public domain].

Solar Power Is Set To Get More Expensive

The sun constantly bathes half the planet with energy. The energy may be free, but the methods for converting it to electricity cost money. Last year, the Chinese government cut subsidies to their solar panel manufacturers to shrink the industry which was perceived as bloated. This forced Chinese solar panel makers to cut prices to clear inventory. This drove down prices about 30%, making solar power cheaper than ever.

Reuters is reporting that Eric Luo, president of one of the largest solar panel makers in China, predicts that “the party is definitely over.” Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Luo said that prices have quit dropping and he expected industry consolidation to cause prices to rise by as much as 15% over the next two years.

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Spend All Day On The Lake

Solar vehicles are getting more and more common as the price of solar panels comes down, and the availability of motors and controllers for all of these vehicles rises. Making a solar-electric bike from a kit is one thing, but this solar-powered boat is a master class in hacking at all levels, from the solar drive train to the pontoons, and even the anchor.

[J Mantzel] has many videos about his boat on his channel, and watching them all will likely leave you wanting to build your own. He builds almost everything on his boat from scratch from things he has lying around. For example, the anchor was hand-built from fiberglass and then filled with concrete, and his steering system is a semi-complex system of ropes, pulleys, and shafts. Most of the boat’s shell was hand-built from fiberglass as well, and everything that can be repurposed is saved for later use.

The ten panels, batteries, inverter, and other miscellaneous part of the system were about half of the cost of the whole vessel, but he reports that he also uses the boat as a backup power source for his house, and can use the system to run other things like an electric chainsaw for example. He also uses the boat for camping and construction, and without having to worry about fuel it has been very useful to him.

If you get into the videos on the channel, you’ll find that this isn’t his only solar-powered boat. He recently completed a solar speedboat as well with a custom-built propeller that can really move across the water. His videos are apparently very popular as well, since they have been linked to repeatedly by readers in some of the recent solar vehicle write-ups we’ve published.

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Go Up A Creek Without A Paddle

Kayaks are a some of the most versatile watercraft around. You can fish from them, go on backpacking trips, or just cruise around your local lake for a few hours. They’re inexpensive, lightweight, don’t require fuel, and typically don’t require a license or insurance to operate. They also make a great platform for a solar-powered boat like this one with only 150 watts of panels and a custom-built motor with parts from an RC airplane.

[William Frasier] built his solar-powered kayak using three solar panels, two mounted across the bow of the boat using pontoons to keep them from dipping into the water, and the other mounted aft. Separating the panels like this helps to prevent all three of them being shaded at once when passing under bridges. They’re all wired in parallel to a 12V custom-built motor which is an accomplishment in itself. It uses custom-turned parts from teak, a rot-resistant wood, is housed in an aluminum enclosure, and uses an RC airplane propeller for propulsion.

Without using the paddles and under full sun, the kayak can propel itself at about 4 knots (7 kmh) which is comparable to a kayak being propelled by a human with a paddle. With a battery, some of the shading problems could be eliminated, and adding an autopilot to it would make it almost 100% autonomous.

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Hacking A Solar Bubble Blaster With Grandkids

[Fmilburn] was having fun with his grandkids, playing around with a small Radio Shack solar panel, some supercapacitors and a Zener diode when the kids eventually moved on to blowing bubbles with their grandmother. To regain their interest he got an inexpensive battery powered, soap Bubble Blaster and converted it to run on the solar panel and supercapacitors instead.

Supercapacitor power soap bubble blaster voltageHis write-up is a pretty fun read, walking through his process, including an oscilloscope measurement showing how the capacitors’ voltage drops from 5.26 V to 3.5 V when the trigger is pressed, and interestingly, slowly recovers until it’s released a second later, when it then rises back to 4.5 V. He’s even included how he worked out of the panel’s maximum power point (MPP), which is what he was doing when the kids were first lured away to blow soap bubbles. But we’re sure Hackaday readers aren’t as easily distracted.

The resulting Solar Powered Bubble Blaster works quite well. At a starting voltage of 5.23 V, it runs for 15 seconds and then takes only a minute to recharge. Charged batteries would have had a longer runtime but take longer to recharge, an important point when trying to keep kids interested. See it in action in the video below.

Want to instead fill your neighborhood with soap bubbles? Check out this 14,000 BPM (Bubbles Per Minute) 3D printed soap bubble machine. Or maybe something more relaxed is your speed.

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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.