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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Solar Heart Engineered to Beat for Decades

It’s often said that if something is worth doing it’s worth doing right, or maybe even worth overdoing. This is clearly a concept that [ANTALIFE] takes very seriously, as made abundantly clear by projects like the solar powered “beating” heart he made as a gift for his wife. What for most of us would have ended up being a junk bin build becomes a considerable engineering project in his hands, with a level of research and fine tuning that’s frankly staggering.

But [ANTALIFE] didn’t put this much thought into the device just for fun. He wants it to remain functional for as long as 30 years, and hopes he and the missus can still look on it fondly in their retirement years. Keeping an electronic device up and running for decades straight means you need to look carefully at each component and try to steer clear of any potential pitfalls.

The biggest one was the battery. More specifically, the fact he couldn’t use one. The lifetime of most rechargeable batteries is measured in hundreds of cycles, which for a device which will be charged by solar every day, means the battery is going to start showing its age in only 4 to 5 years. That simply wasn’t going to cut it.

[ANTALIFE] did some digging and realized that the solution was to use a supercapacitor, specifically the AVX SCMS22C255PRBA0. This is little wonder is rated for a staggering half million cycles, which in theory means that even with daily use it should still take a charge in the year 3300. In practice of course there are a lot of variables which will reduce that lifetime such as temperature fluctuations and the Earth being conquered by apes; but no matter what caveats you put on the figure it should still make 30 years without breaking a sweat.

Similar thought was given to choosing a solar cell with a suitably long lifetime, and he did plenty of testing and experimentation with his charging circuit, including some very nice graphs showing efficiency over time, to make sure it was up to snuff. Finally he walks the reader though his light-sensitive ring oscillator circuit which gives the device its pleasing “breathing” effect once the lights go down.

We’d love to bring you an update on this device in 30 years to see how close [ANTALIFE] got, but as we’re still trying to work the kinks out of the mobile version of the site we can’t make any guarantees about what the direct-brain interface version of HaD might look like. In the meantime though, you can read up on the long term battle between supercapacitors and traditional batteries.

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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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Pedal Far With A Solar Powered Tricycle

More and more electric bikes have been rolling out into the streets lately as people realize how inexpensive and easy they are to ride and use when compared to cars. They can also be pedaled like a normal bike, so it’s still possible to get some exercise with them too. Most have a range somewhere around 10-30 miles depending on battery size, weight, and aerodynamics, but with a few upgrades such as solar panels it’s possible to go much, much further on a charge.

[The Rambling Shepherd] had a tricycle (in the US, generally still considered a bicycle from a legal standpoint) that he had already converted to electric with a hub motor and battery, and was getting incredible range when using it to supplement his manual pedaling. He wanted to do better, though, and decided to add a few solar panels to his build. His first attempt didn’t fare so well as the 3D-printed mounts for the panel failed, but with a quick revision his second attempt survived a 50-mile trip. Even more impressive, he only had his battery half charged at the beginning of the journey but was still able to make it thanks to the added energy from the panels.

If you’re thinking that this looks familiar, we recently featured a tandem tricycle that was making a solar-powered trip from Europe to China with a similar design. It has the advantage of allowing the rider to pedal in the shade, and in a relatively comfortable riding position compared to a normal bike. Future planned upgrades include an MPPT charge controller to improve the efficiency of the panels.

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Energy Sipping Neodymium Sphere Keeps on Spinning

At this point we’re sure you are aware, but around these parts we don’t deduct points for projects which we can’t immediately see a practical application for. We don’t make it our business to say what is and isn’t worth your time as an individual hacker. If you got a kick out of it, great. Learned something? Even better. If you did both of those things and took the time to document it, well that’s precisely the business we’re in.

So when [Science Toolbar] sent in this project which documents the construction of an exceptionally energy efficient spinning neodymium sphere, we knew it was our kind of thing. In the documentation it’s referred to as a motor, though it doesn’t appear to have the torque to do any useful work. But still, if it can spin continuously off of the power provided by a calculator-style photovoltaic cell, it’s still a neat trick.

But how does it work? It starts by cracking open one of those little solar powered toys; the ones that wave or dance around as soon as any light hits the panel in their base. As [Science Toolbar] explains, inside these seemingly magical little gadgets is a capacitor and the classic black epoxy blob that contains an oscillator circuit. A charge is built up in the capacitor and dumped into a coil at roughly 1 Hz, which provides just enough of a push to get the mechanism going.

In the video after the break, [Science Toolbar] demonstrates how you can take those internals and pair it with a much larger coil. Rather than prompting a little sunflower or hula girl to do its thing, the coil in this version provides the motive force for getting the neodymium sphere spinning. To help things along, they’re even using a junk box zero friction magnetic bearing made up of a wood screw and a magnetized screwdriver tip.

It’s an interesting example of how a tiny charge can be built up over time, and with a nice enough enclosure this will make for a pretty cool desk toy. We’ve previously seen teardowns of similar toys, which revealed a surprising amount of complexity inside that little epoxy blob. No word on whether or not the version [Science Toolbar] cannibalized was quite so clever, however.

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The Linux Throwie: A Non-Spacefaring Satellite

Throwies occupy a special place in hardware culture — a coin cell battery, LED, and a magnet that can be thrown into an inaccessible place and stick there as a little beacon of colored light. Many of us will fondly remember this as a first project. Alas, time marches inevitably on, and launching cheerful lights no longer teaches me new skills. With a nod to those simpler times, I’ve been working on the unusual idea of building a fully functional server that can be left in remote places and remain functional, like a throwie (please don’t actually throw it). It’s a little kooky, yet should still deliver a few years of occasional remote access if you leave it somewhere with sunlight.

A short while ago, I described the power stages for this solar-powered, cloud accessible Linux server. It only activates on demand, so a small solar cell and modest battery are sufficient to keep the whole show running.

Where we left off, I had a solar cell that could charge a battery, and provide regulated 12 V and 5 V output. For it to be a functional device, there are three high level problems to solve:

  1. It must be possible to set up the device without direct physical access
  2. You must be able to remotely turn it on and off as needed.
  3. It needs to be accessible from the Internet.

The funny thing is, this hardware reminds me of a satellite. Of course it’s not meant to go into space, but I do plan to put it somewhere not easy to get to again, it runs off of solar power, and there’s a special subsystem (ESP8266) to tend the power, check for remote activation, and turn the main computer (Raspberry Pi 3) on and off as necessary. This sounds a lot like space race tech, right?

As I have a bit more code than usual to share with you today, I’ll discuss the most interesting parts, and provide links to the full firmware files at the end of the article.

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Weather Station Is A Tutorial in Low Power Design

Building your own weather station is a fun project in itself, but building it to be self-sufficient and off-grid adds another set of challenges to the mix. You’ll need a battery and a solar panel to power the station, which means adding at least a regulator and charge controller to your build. If the panel and battery are small, you’ll also need to make some power-saving tweaks to the code as well. (Google Translate from Italian) The tricks that [Danilo Larizza] uses in his build are useful for more than just weather stations though, they’ll be perfect for anyone trying to optimize their off-grid projects for battery and solar panel size.

When it comes to power conservation, the low-hanging fruit is plucked first. [Danilo] set the measurement intervals to as long as possible and put the microcontroller (a NodeMCU) to sleep in between. Removing the power from the sensors when the microcontroller was asleep was another easy step, but the device was still crashing overnight. Then he turned to a hardware solution and added a more efficient battery charger to the setup, which saved even more power. This is all the more impressive because the station communicates via WiFi which is notoriously difficult to run in low-power applications.

Besides the low power optimizations, the weather station itself is interesting for its relative simplicity. It could be built with things most of us have knocking around. Best of all, [Danilo] published the source code on his site, so most of the hard work has been done already. If you’re thinking he seems a little familiar, it’s because we’ve featured some of his projects before, like his cheap WiFi extender antenna and his homemade hybrid tube amplifier.