Supercapacitors Propel Rocket To The Skies

OK, so this isn’t really a rocket. In the strictest definition, rockets are vehicles or projectiles that propel themselves through jettisoning mass, usually through the combustion of fuel. But with electric motors getting stronger and stronger, folks are building craft that look a lot more like rockets than airplanes. [Tom Stanton] is one such person (Youtube link, embedded below).

We’ve seen “electric rocket” builds before, but where others have used lithium batteries, [Tom] has used supercapacitors instead. Six supercaps are installed in a 3D printed mount, and supply power to a 500 W brushless outrunner motor which gives the rocket the thrust to climb into the sky.

In testing, [Tom] estimates the rocket was able to reach an altitude of approximately 60 m, or 200 ft. That’s not particularly astounding, but it does prove that supercaps can run a high current load in a real world situation. Additionally, their fast recharge rate allows [Tom] to make a repeat flights in just about the time it takes to repack the parachute. Video after the break.

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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.

Tesla Eyes Ultracapacitor Future With Maxwell Acquisition

As reported by Bloomberg, Tesla has acquired the innovative energy storage company Maxwell Technologies for $218 Million. The move is a direct departure from Tesla’s current energy storage requirements; instead of relying on lithium battery technology, this acquisition could signal a change to capacitor technology.

The key selling point of capacitors, either of the super- or ultra- variety, is the much shorter charge and discharge rates. Where a supercapacitor can be used to weld metal by simply shorting the terminals (don’t do that, by the way), battery technology hasn’t yet caught up. You can only charge batteries at a specific rate, and you can only discharge them at a specific rate. The acquisition of an ultracapacitor manufacturer opens the possibility of these powerhouses finding their way into electric vehicles.

While there is a single problem with super- and ultra-capacitors — the sheer volume and the fact that a module of ultracaps will hold much less energy than a module of batteries of the same size — the best guess is that Tesla won’t be replacing all their batteries with caps in the short-term. Analysts think that future Teslas may feature a ‘co-battery’ of sorts, allowing for fast charging and discharging through a series of ultracapacitors, with the main energy storage in the car still being the lithium battery modules. This will be especially useful for regenerative braking, as slowing down a three thousand pound vehicle produces a lot of energy, and Tesla’s current battery technology can’t soak all of it up.

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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Supercapacitors In A Servo: The “Forever” Flashlight

The principle is well understood: use a motor in reverse and you get a generator. Using this bit of knowledge back in 2001 is what kick-started [Ted Yapo]’s Hackaday Prize entry. At the time, [Ted] was searching for a small flashlight for astronomy, but didn’t like dealing with dead batteries. He quickly cobbled together a makeshift solution out of some supercapacitors and a servo-as-a-generator, hacked for continuous rotation.

A testament to the supercapacitors, 17 years later it’s still going strong – leading [Ted] to document the project and also improve it. The original circuit was as simple as a servo, protection diode, some supercapacitors, and a LED with accompanying resistor; but now greater things are afoot.

A DC-DC boost converter enables constant power through the LED, regardless of the capacitor voltage. This is achieved by connecting the feedback pin of an MCP1624 switcher to an INA199 current-shunt monitor. The MCP1624 kicks in at 0.65V and stays active down to 0.35V. This is all possible due to the supercapacitors, which happily keep increasing current as voltage drops – all the way to 0.35V. Batteries are less ideal in this situation, as their internal resistance increases as voltage drops, as well as increasing with age.

When testing the new design, [Ted] found that the gears on his servos kept stripping when he was using them to charge capacitors. Though at first he attributed it to the fact that the gears were plastic, he realized that his original prototype from 2001 had been plastic as well. Eventually, he discovered the cause: modern supercapacitors are too good! The ones he’d been using in 2001 were significantly less advanced and had a much higher ESR, limiting the charging current. The only solution is to use metal gear servos

Want to read more about boost converter design? We have the pros and cons of microcontrollers for boost converters, or this neat Nixie driver for USB power.

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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Building a Portable Solar Powered Spot Welder: Charging Supercapacitors

Before Lunar New Year, I had ordered two 3000 F, 2.7 V supercapacitors from China for about $4 each. I don’t actually remember why, but they arrived (unexpectedly) just before the holiday.

Supercapacitors (often called ultracapacitors) fill a niche somewhere between rechargeable lithium cells and ordinary capacitors. Ordinary capacitors have a low energy density, but a high power density: they can store and release energy very quickly. Lithium cells store a lot of energy, but charge and discharge at a comparatively low rate. By weight, supercapacitors store on the order of ten times less energy than lithium cells, and can deliver something like ten times lower power than capacitors.

Overall they’re an odd technology. Despite enthusiastic news coverage, they are a poor replacement for batteries or capacitors, but their long lifespan and moderate energy and power density make them suitable for some neat applications in their own right. Notably, they’re used in energy harvesting, regenerative braking, to extend the life of or replace automotive lead-acid batteries, and to retain data in some types of memory. You’re not likely to power your laptop with supercapacitors.

Anyway, I had a week-long holiday, and two large capacitors of dubious origin. Sometimes we live in the best of all possible worlds. Continue reading “Building a Portable Solar Powered Spot Welder: Charging Supercapacitors”