Solar-Harvesting Blinkenlights

A few years ago a fad ripped through the makersphere where people would build cheap, solar powered LED blinkers, glue a magnet to them, and throw them on anything metal. It was an interesting time, but luckily did not last for too long. With some effort and craftsmanship, though, the solar throwie idea can be turned into something more elegant, though, such as this solar harvesting blinking gadget.

Like its predecessors, the device itself behaves simply, although this one is equipped with a small supercapacitor which can run the device for 8 hours without sun. It has a small solar panel which can charge the capacitor in five minutes, and from there the LEDs inside simply blink. The quality shows in the final packaging, as [Jasper] has taken to encasing them in epoxy shapes such as pyramids, for a nice paperweight or tchotchke. It is also noteworthy because of Jasper’s test device; since he is mass producing them he needed something to test each board for functionality before encasing them in the epoxy, and he built a small pen tester specifically for them too.

While the build is pretty straightforward, anyone looking to enclose a simple circuit in epoxy without bubbles or other problems might want to check this one out. It would also be a good platform for building other throwie-like projects on top of. In the past they didn’t just blink lights but also did things like run small Linux servers.

Fail Of The Week: Supercapacitor Spot Welder

[Julian] needed to weld a bit of nickel to some steel and decided to use a spot welding technique. Of course he didn’t have a spot welder sitting around. Since these are fairly simple machines so [Julian] set out to build a spot welder using a charged supercapacitor. The fundamentals all seem to be there — the supercap is a 100 Farad unit and with a charge of 2.6V, that works out to over 300 joules — yet it simply doesn’t work.

The problem is in how the discharge energy is being directed. Just using the capacitor would cause the charge to flow out as a spark when you got near the point to discharge. To combat this, [Julian] put a microswitch between the capacitor and the copper point he expected to use as the welding tip. The microswitch, of course, is probably not the best for carrying a large surge of current, so we suspect that may be part of why he didn’t get great results.

The other thing we noticed is that he used a single point and used the workpiece as a ground return. Most spot welders use two points near each other or on each side of the workpiece. The current from the capacitor is probably just absorbed by the relatively large piece of metal.

The second video below from [American Tech] shows a 500F capacitor doing spot welding with little more than two wires and it seems to work. Hackaday’s own [Sean Boyce] even made one out of some whopping 3000F caps. It did work, although he’s been pursuing improvements.

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Supercap Drink Coasters Are The Life Of The Party

You’ve probably seen multicolored flashing LEDs embedded into clear plastic cups or coasters before, they’re quite commonly used in fancy restaurants that also feature animatronic characters and a gift shop on the way out. But have you ever wondered about the logistics of maintaining such devices? When the anthropomorphic rodent shuts down for the night, you’re going to want to clean all those blinking doodads; but any opening to connect a charger or insert a battery is just a leak waiting to happen.

[Scott Clandinin] has come up with a solution to this problem that’s equal parts brilliant simplicity and unabashed overengineering. Using wireless charging and supercapacitors, he’s developing an LED coaster that can be hermetically sealed in clear resin.

With no plugs to connect or batteries to change, these coasters can be permanently encapsulated with no ill effects. Granted the supercapacitors will degrade with time and eventually won’t hold a charge for as long, but even the most conservative estimates would have these coasters still partying in a decade.

For his prototype version [Scott] has put together a simple charging base, but we imagine in a full deployment such devices could be charged with induction coils built into a bar or table. While the energy consumption could potentially be a showstopper, we’d love to see a future version that integrates a radio receiver. Then the coasters could double as pagers to let diners know their table is ready.

While this device is obviously much thicker than a traditional coaster, it looks fairly reasonable even at this early stage. We like the concentric design that puts the coil inside the PCB, and wonder if similar cutouts couldn’t be used to get the twin 15F supercapacitors and charging module hunkered down just a few millimeters more. The 2019 Hackaday Prize is all about evolving an idea into a design suitable for production, and those are the sort of incremental improvements that the judges will certainly be keeping an eye out for.

A Solar-Powered Box Of Sensors To Last 100 Years

It’s a simple goal: build a waterproof box full of environmental sensors that can run continuously for the next century. OK, so maybe it’s not exactly “simple”. But whatever you want to call this epic quest to study and record the planet we call home, [sciencedude1990] has decided to make his mission part of the 2019 Hackaday Prize.

The end goal might be pretty lofty, but we think you’ll agree that the implementation keeps the complexity down to a minimum. Which is important if these solar-powered sensor nodes are to have any chance of going the distance. A number of design decisions have been made with longevity in mind, such as replacing lithium ion batteries that are only good for a few hundred recharge cycles with supercapacitors which should add a handful of zeros to that number.

At the most basic level, each node in the system consists of photovoltaic panels, the supercapacitors, and a “motherboard” based on the ATmega256RFR2. This single-chip solution provides not only an AVR microcontroller with ample processing power for the task at hand, but an integrated 2.4 GHz radio for uploading data to a local base station. [sciencedude1990] has added a LSM303 accelerometer and magnetometer to the board, but the real functionality comes from external “accessory” boards.

Along the side of the main board there’s a row of ports for external sensors, each connected to the ATmega through a UART multiplexer. To help control energy consumption, each external sensor has its own dedicated load switch; the firmware doesn’t power up the external sensors until they’re needed, and even then, only if there’s enough power in the supercapacitors to do so safely. Right now [sciencedude1990] only has a GPS module designed to plug into the main board, but we’re very interested in seeing what else he (and perhaps even the community) comes up with.

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.