Getting Started With USB-C And Common Pitfalls With Charging And Data Transfer

USB-C is one of those things that generally everyone seems to agree on that it is a ‘good thing’, but is it really? In this first part of a series on USB-C, [Andreas Spiess] takes us through the theory of USB-C and USB Power Delivery (PD), as well as data transfer with USB-C cables. Even ignoring the obvious conclusion that with USB-C USB should now actually be called the ‘Universal Parallel Bus’ on account of its two pairs of differential data lines, there’s quite a bit of theory and associated implementation details involved.

The Raspberry Pi 4B's wrong USB-C CC-pin configuration is a good teaching example.
The Raspberry Pi 4B’s wrong USB-C CC-pin configuration is a good teaching example.

Starting with the USB 2.0 ‘legacy mode’ and the very boring and predictable 5 V power delivery in this mode, [Andreas] shows why you may not get any power delivered to a device with USB-C connector. Most likely the Downstream Facing Peripheral (DFP, AKA not the host) lacks the required resistors on the CC (Configuration Channel) pins, which are both what the other USB-C end uses to determine the connector orientation, as well as what type of device is connected.

This is where early Raspberry Pi 4B users for example saw themselves caught by surprise when their boards didn’t power up except with some USB cables.

The saga continues through [Andreas]’s collection of USB-C cables, as he shows that many of them lack the TX/RX pairs, and that’s before trying to figure out which cables have the e-marker chip to allow for higher voltages and currents.

On the whole we’re still excited about what USB-C brings to the table, but the sheer complexity and number of variables make that there are a myriad of ways in which something cannot work as expected. Ergo Caveat Emptor.

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USB-C PD: New Technology Done Right

There is a tendency as we get older, to retreat into an instinctive suspicion of anything new or associated with young people. All of us will know older people who have fallen down this rabbit hole, and certainly anything to do with technological advancement is often high on their list of ills which beset society. There’s a Douglas Adams passage which sums it up nicely:

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Here at Hackaday we’re just like anybody else, in that we all get older. Our lives are devoted to an insatiable appetite for new technology, but are we susceptible to the same trap, and could we see something as against the antural order of things simply because we don’t like it? It’s something that has been on my mind in some way since I wrote a piece back in 2020 railing at the ridiculous overuse of new technologies to limit the lifespan and repairability of new cars and then a manifesto for how the industry might fix it, am I railing against it simply because I can’t fix it with a screwdriver in the way I could my 1960 Triumph Herald? I don’t think so, and to demonstrate why I’d like to talk about another piece of complex new technology that has got everything right.

In 2017 I lamented the lack of a universal low voltage DC power socket that was useful, but reading the piece here in 2024 it’s very obvious that in the years since my quest has been solved. USB Power Delivery was a standard back then, but hadn’t made the jump to the ubiquity the USB-C-based power plug and socket enjoys today. Most laptops still had proprietary barrel jack connectors, and there were still plenty of phones with micro-USB sockets. In the years since it’s become the go-to power standard, and there are a huge number of modules and devices to supply and receive it at pretty high power.

At first sight though, it might seem as though USB-PD is simply putting a piece of unnecessary technology in the way of what should be a simple DC connector. Each and every USB-PD connection requires some kind of chip to manage it, to negotiate the connection, and to transform voltage. Isn’t that the same as the cars, using extra technology merely for the sake of complexity? On the face of it you might think so, but the beauty lies in it being a universally accepted standard. If car manufacturers needed the same functionalty you’d have modules doing similar things in a Toyota, a Ford, or a Renault, but they would all be proprietary and they’d be eye-wateringly expensive to replace. Meanwhile USB-PD modules have to work with each other, so they have become a universal component available for not a huge cost. I have several bags of assorted modules in a box of parts here, and no doubt you do too. The significant complexity of the USB-PD endpoint doesn’t matter any more, because should it break then replacing it is an easy and cheap process.

This is not to say that USB-PD is without its problems though, the plethora of different cable standards is its Achilies’ heel. But if you’re every accused of a knee-jerk reaction to a bad piece of new technology simply because it’s new, point them to it as perhaps the perfect example of the responsible use of new technology.

USB-C Power Supply Pushes Almost 2 KW

When the USB standard was first revealed, a few peripherals here and there adopted it but it was far from the “universal” standard implied by its name. It was slow, had limited ability to power anything, and its plug-and-play capability was spotty at best. The modern USB standard, on the other hand, has everything its predecessors lacked including extremely high data transfer rates and the ability to support sending or receiving a tremendous amount of power. [LeoDJ] is taking that latter capability to the extreme, with this USB-C power supply that can deliver 1.7 kW of power.

The project was inspired by the discovery of an inexpensive USB-PD (power delivery) module which is capable of delivering either 100W or 65W. After extensive testing, to see if the modules were following the USB standard and how they handled heat, [LeoDJ] grabbed 20 of the 65W modules and another four of the 100W modules and assembled them all into an array, held together in a metal chassis that also functions as a heat sink. The modules receive their DC power from two server power supplies wired together in series.

There was some troubleshooting, including soldering difficulty and a short circuit, but with all the kinks ironed out this power supply can deliver nearly 2 kW to an array of USB-capable devices and, according to the amount of thermal testing done, can supply that power nearly indefinitely. It’s an over-the-top power supply with a small niche of uses, but to see it built is satisfying nonetheless. For more information on all of the perks of working with USB-C, check out this tell-all we published last year.

A Compact SMD Reflow Hotplate Powered By USB-PD

When it comes to home-lab reflow work, there are a lot of ways to get the job done. The easiest thing to do perhaps is to slap a PID controller on an old toaster oven and call it a day. But if your bench space is limited, you might want to put this compact reflow hotplate to work for you.

There are a lot of nice features in [Toby Chui]’s build, not least of which is the heating element. Many DIY reflow hotplates use a PCB heater, where long, thin traces in the board are used as resistive heating elements. This seems like a great idea, but as [Toby] explains in the project video below, even high-temperature FR4 substrate isn’t rated for the kinds of temperatures needed for some reflow profiles. His search for alternatives led him to metal ceramic heaters (MCH), which are commonly found in medical and laboratory applications. The MCH he chose was rated for 20 VDC at 50 watts — perfect for powering with USB-PD.

The heater sits above the main PCB on a Kapton-wrapped MDF frame with a thermistor to close the loop. While it’s not the biggest work surface we’ve seen, it’s a good size for small projects. The microcontroller is a CH552, which we’ve talked about before; aside from that and the IP2721 PD trigger chip needed to get the full 60 watts out of the USB-PD supply, there’s not much else on the main board.

This looks like a nice design, and [Toby] has made all the design files available if you’d like to give it a crack. Of course, you might want to freshen up on USB-PD before diving in, in which case we recommend [Arya]’s USB-PD primer.

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USB-C Power For Ham Radio

Even though manufacturers of handheld ham radios have been busy adding all sorts of bells and whistles into their portable offerings, for some reason, many of them lack a modern USB-C port. In the same vein, while some have USB for programming or otherwise communicating between the radio and a computer, very few can use USB for power. Instead , they rely on barrel jacks or antiquated charging cradles. If you’d like to modernize your handheld radio’s power source, take a look at what [jephthai] did to his Yaesu.

In the past, USB ports could be simply soldered onto a wire and used to power basically anything that took 5 VDC. But the radio in question needs 12 volts, so the key was to find a USB-C cable with the built-in electronics to negotiate the right amount of power from USB-PD devices. For this one, [jephthai] cut the barrel connector off his radio’s power supply and spliced in some Anderson power pole connectors so he could use either the standard radio charger or one spliced onto this special cable.

With this fairly simple modification out of the way, it’s possible to power the handheld radio for long outings with the proper USB battery bank on hand. For plenty of situations this is much preferable to toting around a 12 V battery, which was the method of choice for powering things like QRP rigs when operating off-grid.

Showing a USB-C tester running the DingoCharge script, charging a battery pack at 7V. To the right is a battery pack being charged, and a USB-C charger doing the charging.

Use USB-C Chargers To Top Up Li-Ion Packs With This Hack

In USB-C Power Delivery (PD) standard, the PPS (Programmable Power Supply) mode is an optional mode that lets you request a non-standard voltage from a charger, with the ability to set a current limit of your choice, too. Having learned this, [Jason] from [Rip It Apart] decided to investigate — could this feature be used for charging Li-Ion battery packs, which need the voltage and current to vary in a specific way throughout the charging process? Turns out, the answer is a resounding “yes”, and thanks to a USB-C tester that’s programmable using Lua scripts, [Jason] shows us how we can use a PPS-capable USB-C charger for topping up our Li-Ion battery packs, in a project named DingoCharge.

The wonderful write-up answers every question you have, starting with a safety disclaimer, and going through everything you might want to know. The GitHub repo hosts not only code but also full installation and usage instructions.

DingoCharge handles more than just Li-Ion batteries — this ought to work with LiFePO4 and lithium titanate batteries, too.  [Jason] has been working on Ni-MH and lead-acid support. You can even connect an analog output thermal sensor and have the tester limit the charge process depending on the temperature, showing just how fully-featured a solution the DingoCharge project is.

The amount of effort put into polishing this project is impressive, and now it’s out there for us to take advantage of; all you need is a PPS-capable PSU and a supported USB-C tester. If your charger’s PPS is limited by 11V, as many are, you’ll only be able to fully charge 2S packs with it – that said, this is a marked improvement over many Li-Ion solutions we’ve seen. Don’t have a Li-Ion pack? Build one out of smartphone cells! Make sure your pack has a balancing circuit, of course, since this charger can’t provide any, and all will be good. Still looking to get into Li-Ion batteries? We have a three-part guide, from basics to mechanics and electronics!

DIY USB Charging The Right Way

Since the widespread adoption of USB 1.1 in the 90s, USB has become the de facto standard for connecting most peripherals to our everyday computers. The latest revision of the technology has been USB 4, which pushes the data rate capabilities to 40 Gbit/s. This amount of throughput is mindblowing compared to the USB 1.x speeds which were three to four orders of magnitude slower in comparison. But data speeds haven’t been the only thing changing with the USB specifications. The amount of power handling they can do has increased by orders of magnitude as well, as this DIY USB charger demonstrates by delivering around 200 W to multiple devices at once.

The build comes to us from [tobychui] who not only needed USB rapid charging for his devices while on-the-go but also wanted to build the rapid charger himself and for the charger to come in a small form factor while still using silicon components instead of more modern gallium nitride solutions. The solution he came up with was to use a 24 V DC power supply coupled with two regulator modules meant for solar panel installations to deliver a staggering amount of power to several devices at once. The charger is still relatively small, and cost around $30 US dollars to make.

Part of what makes builds like this possible is the USB Power Delivery (PD) standard, which has enabled all kinds of electronics to switch to USB for their power needs rather than getting their power from dedicated, proprietary, and/or low-quality power bricks or wall warts. In fact, you can even use this technology to do things like charge lithium batteries.

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