Tag Archives: arduino

Free Solar Charger PCBs

A reader of this blog was so kind to send me a number of surplus boards of two of my solar charger designs. Thank you, Joachim.

Solar Charger Hall of Fame

[November 10, 2017]

After just a few days, all of the boards were sent out to all over the world. Today, the first photo of an assembled board has arrived. I’ll post this and all following photos here:

By Orkhan from Germany

Arduino Solar Charger

The first variety is my Arduino solar charger shield. Being my first attempt it is maybe not the most advanced design but it’s by far the simplest. So it’s well suited if you want to get your hands dirty while keeping the level of complexity reasonably low and do all your programming via the Arduino IDE. And despite its simplicity it operates very efficiently – apart from the power-hungry Arduino.

Solar Charger Rev C

This is a relatively recent and far more advanced design. It is very low power, highly efficient, comes with USB and lots of bells and whistles. So if your ambitions are somewhat higher this board is for you.

The Rules

Now here are the rules. As the title of this post suggests, I give these away for free. I ship them world wide absolutely free of charge. All I ask for in return is a photo of the assembled board within 6 weeks after you get the board. A maximum of 2 boards per person (one of each design).  First come first served. Just send an email to [admin at soldernerd dot com].

MPPT Solar Charger Design

I’m currently waiting for the boards for my Ultrasonic Anemometer Rev B to arrive from Hong Kong and this gives me some time to write about the MPPT Solar Charger design that I did quite some time ago. I published a series of posts on a Arduino MPPT Solar Charger Shield and got a lot of encouraging feedback. But that shield was more of a proof-of-concept than a finished product.  While it generally performed well it drew way too much current when idle to actually be deployed unless you can count on plenty of sunshine every day.

SolarChargerEagleTop

Aiming for very low power consumption

While I like the Arduino platform I had to admit that it’s probably not ideal for a low-power design. Yes there are some things you can do to reduce the 50mA or the Arduino draws but it will never be truely low power. So I designed a stand alone version with plenty of extra features that I hope to draw only a small fraction of the current. I particularly care about the idle current, i.e. the current it pulls when the solar panel is not producing any energy. In winter, the panel might be covered by snow for weeks and you don’t want your charger to drain the battery during that time. With this new design I’m aiming for an idle current in the tens of microamps. Even if it ends up being 100 microamps that is still 500 times less than an Arduino uses just by itself. And that means it draws less than 1Ah (ampere-hour) per year so you will never drain the battery no matter how little sunshine there is.

SolarChargerSchematic1

PIC18 series microcontroller

At the core of the design is a PIC18F26J50 in a 28 pin SOIC package. It’s capable of running at down to 2.15 volts and consumes extremely little power when running at lower clock speeds. And apart from that it features USB so we can have all the benefits of USB without any external components except, of course, a USB socket.

The PIC has two crystals at its disposal. A 8MHz crystal which will be boosted up to 32MHz by its internal PLL. That’s what the PIC will run on when there is work to do. And then there is a 32.768kHz crystal that will be used to run its real-time clock (RTC). When there is little to no work to do this low-frequency clock will also be used to run the CPU which will greatly reduce power consumption. Power consumption is approximately linear in frequency so this should cut power consumption by a factor of about 1000 compared to full-speed operation.

SolarChargerSchematic2

Switch mode power supply

Now we can run the microcontroller at only a few volts but our power supply is a 12 volt battery. So one of the most straight forward things to do in order to save power was to use a switch mode step-down regulator aka buck.

I looked around and found the Texas TPS62120. It’s only capable of providing 75mA but that’s more than enough for us in this case. It works at a switching frequency of 800kHz and only consumes a bit more than 10 microamps with no load at its output.

It needs a 18uH inductor as well as some ceramic capacitors to work. The output voltage is set via a pair of resistors acting as a voltage divider. I’ve added a n-channel mosfet that allows the PIC to increase the output voltage from 2.2 volts to 3.3 volts when needed. Because while the PIC can run on down to 2.15 volts the display can’t. And even the PIC needs 3.0 to 3.6 volts for USB operation.

Synchronous / asynchronous operation

The actual MPPT converter has changed only little. I’ve changed the mosfet driver to a MIC4605.  Unlike the IR2104 used last time, this model has adaptive dead-time (as opposed to the longish 540ns fixed) and separate inputs for each mosfet. This will allow us to either operate in synchronous (using both mosfets) or asynchronous (only using the upper fet and relying on the diode) mode. Asynchronous operation has a certain efficiency advantage at low power levels so this might come in handy.

The MIC4605 consumes quite little quiescent current for a mosfet driver, only 100uA typical. But that’s still too much for our purpose. So the PIC can power the whole thing off via a NPN transistor and a p-channel mosfet. That BUCK_ON signal also serves as the supply voltage for the INA213 current sensors already used in the last version. So the entire converter can be powered off and should consume precisely zero current when not in use.

What about the voltage divider necessary to measure the battery voltage? That’s been taken care of, too. That divider is interrupted by a (low threshold voltage) n-channel mosfet unless a signal from the PIC turns on the mosfet and closes the circuit.

SolarChargerSchematic3

Port expansion

I soon ran out of GPIO pins with that PIC so I had to add an I2C port expander (MCP23008) to gain another 8 I/O pins. I’ve also added a PCA9546 I2C switch in order to translate between different voltage levels.

It’s probably not the most elegant solution and a future version might trade these 3 chips for a higher pin-count PIC. But I had all components here already so that’s what I’ll use for now.

Precise measurements

In order to precisely measure input and output voltages and currents there is now a MCP3424 4-channel 18-bit ADC. To be sure, we don’t need 18 bits of precision here but we’ll trade some of that precision for speed and work with 14 or 16 bits.

The ADC has its on-board voltage reference and PGA with gains up to 8.  Since it only consumes a maximum of 1uA in standby mode it is always powered on.

There are also a total of 3  LMT86 temperature sensors, one on the board and 2 external ones. The external ones are intended to measure the temperature of the panel and battery, respectively. The maximum voltage for a battery is quite dependent on temperature so that’s a useful information to have. The inputs from the temperature sensors are measured directly by the PIC.  For that purpose there’s also a ADR361 2.5V voltage reference.

Measuring temperatures requires the board voltage to be high, 3.3 volts nominally. So both the voltage reference and the temperature sensors are only powered on when then VCC_HIGH signal is set.

User interface

To communicate with a human user there is a 4×20 LCD display that is controlled via I2C in order to save some I/O pins. There are quite a few external components needed to run it at 3.3 volts so it has its own PCB and connects via a 5-pole wire. There is 3.3 volts and ground for power, SCL and SCD for I2C communication and a PWM singal in order to control the display brightness. Because that’s a rather universal board I will document that as a separate post.

As an input device there’s a rotary encoder with push button. Together with the display (and some decent software) that should allow for a pleasant user experience.

The inputs from the encoder are debounced in hardware via a 74HC126 that serves a double purpose. With its 3-state outputs it allows us to use the pins that are otherwise used for in-circuit programming of the PIC.

Both the rotary encoder (except the push button) and the entire display unit can be powered off when not in use. The push button is always powered on so the user can wake up the user interface at any time by pressing the button. When the user interface is not actively powered on the 74HC126’s outputs are in high-impedance mode and the PIC can be programmed without being affected by the rotary encoder.

SolarChargerSchematic4

Data logging

One might be interested how much energy has been harvested by the solar charger over the last hours, days, weeks or months. So there’s some non-volatile storage as well. The 24FC256 connects via I2C and offers 256kBit of memory. It consumes only 100nA in standby so it can stay powered on at all times.

Fan control

As mentioned, there’s a temperature sensor on the board. If it gets too hot, a fan can be powered on via the FAN_ON signal controlling an n-channel mosfet.

Outputs

There are 4 power outputs, each controlled by a separate signal from the PIC. There should be some PWM modules left on the PIC so some (two I think) can be PWM controlled. A typical application would be LED lighting which can be controlled and dimmed directly from the solar charger via the rotary encoder. Each output channel has a beefy  mosfet of the same type as the MPPT switcher (IPB136N08N3).

Each has its own FAN3111E mosfet driver. They have a separate input for the reference voltage so the PIC can easily control them when running at only 2.2 volts. The FAN3111 should only draw 5uA (10uA max) when idle but there are 4 of them so they can be powered off (all togeher, not individually) when not in use.

SolarChargerSchematic5

USB charging ports

One of the first thing one wants to do when there is power is to charge one’s cell phone or similar device. So there are two USB charging ports capable of delivering some 2 amps of current at 5 volts in total.

They are powered from the 12V batter via a TPS54231 buck converter. So there are a total of 3 buck converters on this board… It is always connected to the 12V rail but the PIC can turn it off when not in use. The regulator’s shutdown current consumption is only 1uA typical (4uA max) so that should be adequate.

Manufacturers of mobile devices have all come up with nasty ways of making their devices incompatible with other manufacturer’s chargers. They basically abuse the otherwise unused (for charging purposes) data lines to recognize their own chargers and discriminate against any others. That might mean they won’t charge at all or only at a slow rate.  So there are two charging ports on this board, one emulating an iPad charger and the other one a popular Samsung scheme. So pretty much any device should be able to charge on at least one of these ports at a reasonable speed.

Summary

As you can see, there’s a lot of functionality in this new design just waiting to be unlocked by some clever software.  I’ve already milled a board and I’m looking forward to populating it and bringing it to life. I guess that will be quite a bit of work but I think its well worth it. Thanks to all of you who have kept asking about this project – I very much appreciate all your feedback.

There are only Eagle files (including PDFs of the layout and schematics) at this point. They can be downloaded on the overview page. There’s now also a prototype. First test results are presented here.

Ultrasonic Anemometer Part 25: I2C Interfacing and more

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It’s been a long six weeks since my last post but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t done anything since. Among other things, I wrote some code to get the I2C interface working and hooked the anemometer up to an Arduino Uno with an LCD display attached. Apart from demonstrating the I2C interface this also nice for testing. For the first time I can see what this thing is measuring in real time without hooking it up to a PC over USB.

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I2C Interfacing

But let’s look at the setup in some more detail. The PIC has a total of two I2C interfaces and I’ve made both of them accessible via the 100mil headers along the edges of the board. One of them is primarily intended for internal purposes like controlling the gain via the I2C digipot. The other one can then be used to interface to some external logic without having to worry about any internal communication. This external I2C interface also comes with 5V compatible pins which means we can interface to 5V devices like an Arduino without any further logic level translation. All we need is a pair of pull-up resistors pulling the SDA and SCL lines up to 5 volts. The Arduino’s Atmega328 already has built-in (weak) pull-up resistors so that’s not a problem. I didn’t think of interfacing to a 5V device when I designed the board and pulled the I2C signals to the anemometer’s 3.3V supply. So for proper 5V operation I’d have to unsolder the two 10k resistors. Luckily, 3.3 volts is enough to almost certainly be recognized as a logic high by the Arduino so the setup works anyway. But I will think about how to improve this in the next version. I might add a diode to allow the lines to be pulled higher than 3.3 volts.

The I2C interface can be configured to act as a master or as a slave device. For now I’ve only implemented slave mode so the wind meter behaves just like a I2C temperature sensor or external ADC. The Arduino acts as a master and asks the slave for its latest measurement every 250ms. The anemometer then returns 8 bytes of data consisting of 2 status bytes, north-south wind speed, east-west wind speed (both in mm/s as signed 16-bit integers) and temperature (0.01 degrees centigrade as signed 16-bit integer). It’s also possible to send data to the anemometer. That data is then saved to a buffer is otherwise ignored.  In a future version of the software one might use this functionality to set the data format to wind speed and wind direction or to change the temperature unit to kelvin or fahrenheit.

20160710_StandaloneAnemometer_027

It would not be difficult to implement master mode as well but so far I haven’t done it yet. A lot of code could be copied from the module communicating with the digipot where the PIC acts as a master. The anemometer could then push data to an external device whenever a new measurement becomes available. Definitely something I’d like to implement at some point but no priority right now.

Bug fixes

I’ve found (and fixed) a number of bugs while testing. Among other things, the axis and direction signals were not always properly set and so the measurements did not always correspond to the direction they should. So take with a grain of salt some of the test results reported earlier. Some of them were almost a bit too good to be true and this bug might have been the cause. I suspect I might have compared two successive measurements in the same direction when I actually wanted to compare measurements taken in opposite directions. But I’ve fixed the code and I’m confident that now all the directions are set and reported correctly.

Individual filter kernels

EqualAmplitudes

As can easily be seen from the scope screenshots above, the shape of the received signal varies quite a bit from transducer to transducer. Note that the amplifier gain is dynamically adjusted to make sure the peak amplitude is the same for all of them but the shape still differs quite substantially. So the kernel for the matched filter has to be some compromise to suit them all. I have now modified the software to use four individual kernels, one for each direction. This gives us the flexibility to calibrate the kernel to each transducer and so get more reliable results for the absolute phase.

Revised board

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My main priority at the moment is to complete the revised version of the board and to order a small series of boards. Until recently I never ordered a board from a professional board house so there are quite a few things for me to learn. For the first time I have to worry about silk screen, for example. Or solder mask. On the other hand, a board house can do a lot of things I can’t. Plated-through holes for example. Or smaller vias. Or place vias under an IC. This means a lot more flexibility in my layout that I first have to get used to. But I’m making progress. I got a simple design of mine produced by dirtypcbs.com and got a batch of very usable boards. More on that in a future post.

Wind tunnel

If you’ve been following this project for a long time already you might remember my simplistic wind tunnel made of a 120mm brushless fan and a cardboard tube. I got a number of suggestions from you guys on how to build something better than that and I also found some useful material online. So I’ve started to build a much improved wind tunnel that will hopefully allow me to perform more meaningful tests. That’s also for one or more future posts.

20160706_StandaloneAnemometer_021

Software ideas

I’ve also played around with some software ideas that I believe to have potential. One is dynamically adjusting the frequency. I’m now only working at the transducer’s nominal frequency of 40kHz. But the individual transducer’s resonance frequency might be somewhat different and might change with temperature or age. So I might try to adjust the frequency dynamically using some perturbation and observation algorithm.

I’m also thinking about measuring at two slightly different frequencies (say, 39.5kHz and 40.5kHz) and using the two phase shifts to figure out the absolute time-of-flight. I’ve given it a try and was not very successful but I haven’t given up on that idea yet.

So that’s it for now. The code for the Ultrasonic Anemometer as well as the Arduino are available for download. See the overview page for the respective links.

Ultrasonic Anemometer Part 19: Testing the Analog Circuit

20160323_AnemometerAnalog_016

In my last post I went through the design of the analog part of the ultrasonic anemometer. Today we will see how the circuit designed last time performs in practice.

20160323_AnemometerAnalog_015

Active Full Wave Rectifier

Let’s first look at the active full-wave rectifier. As a first test I fed the input with a 40kHz sine wave from the scope’s signal generator. Here’s what I got to see on the scope.

Rectifier_40kHz

The input signal is shown in yellow. The pink signal is calculated as the absolute value of the input and is what we are trying to archieve. Finally, the blue signal shows what we actually get on the rectifier’s output. What do you think? The basic wave form is obviously right but the precision leaves quite something to be desired.  So I tried the same setup with an input signal 10 times slower, i.e. 4kHz.

Rectifier_4kHz

As you can easily see, things look much better at 4kHz. That doesn’t make it much better for us since we need it to operate at 40kHz but there doesn’t seem to be anything fundamentally wrong with the design per-se. I think a faster op amp might be that is needed to make this thing work properly at 40kHz, too.

Zero-Crossing Detector

input_rectifier_zerocross

The zero-crossing detector is by far the simplest element of this circuit and has hardly changed since the Arduino anemometer shield. It’s output is shown in blue above. It works just as expected, no surprise here. Well, in the end it’s just a comparator so the sources for error are limited.

Peak Detector Sample And Hold

The input to the peak detector is the rectifier’s output so we should expect to see at least some inaccuracy carried over from the rectifier.

Below is what I got. Again, yellow is the 40kHz sine wave input. Blue and red are the peak detector of the positive and negative half-wave, respectively. Green is the output, i.e. either the blue or red singnal as chosen by the 2:1 multiplexer.

PosPeak_PosGate

The good news is that the circuit basically works as designed. Each peak detector gets zeroed at just the right time. From the screen shot above one might even conclude that the peak detector is fairly accurate. Both half-waves show very similar amplitudes and the output is nicely held stable during the hold period. No droop is visible at least at this level of magnification.

Once you zoom in, things start to look less pretty. There is in deed no droop but the opposite. The output signal rises during the hold period. If you look closely in the screen shot above you can even see it – the segments of the green signal are slightly rising. We’re talking  maybe 10mV here, far from dramatic but still.

Conclusion

20160323_AnemometerAnalog_012

My conclusion is as follows:

  • Zero crossing detector: perfect
  • Active rectifier: poor performance as is but can probably be fixed with a faster op-amp.
  • Peak detector: ok but not good enough. might need lots of trial-and-error to improve it.

I have mentioned in a previous post that I’m still unsure if I should stick to the predominantly analog signal processing or if I should make the switch to a more contemporary, digital, DSP like approach. After having spent an evening or two testing and tweeking this circuit the answer became clear – go digital.

20160323_AnemometerAnalog_014

If you’ve followed my blog for even just a short while you have likely noticed that I enjoy designing and building hardware.  Probably more than I enjoy writing software. But there are several good reasons to to more in software and less in hardware when it comes to this project.

  • The circuit as described above works kind of. But it might take a loooong time to improve it until it really performs well. Chances are that it will never perform as well as I’d like it to.
  • Board space. All this circuitry takes up considerable board space. A later version might use smaller components but this thing will always take up quite a bit of space – maybe a third of the total board area.
  • Even with most of the heavy lifting done in hardware the Arduino is likely not fast enough. We’d need to sample the amplitude at 80kHz which is out of reach for the Arduino’s Atmega328 even when sacrificing some resolution.
  • Further development. Chosing a digital approach enables users to actively contribute to the further development and improvement of this project.
  • Versatility: Eqiping the anemometer with a dedicated microcontroller makes this project much more versatile. It no longer has to be Arduino specific. If you’re an Arduino lover I promise you it will always be Arduino compatible. No need to worry. But equiping it with a easy-to-use SPI or I2C interface makes it useful beyond the Arduino community.
  • Cost.  My analog design uses two op amps among other things. Precision op amps are relatively costly components. It’s not an expensive circuit but it will always cost several dollars for the components alone. And improving the circuit is unlikely to make it cheaper.
  • Processing power is cheap. You might rightly say that a few bucks is not a lot of money to spend on some nice analog circuitry. I fully agree. But one can buy a lot of processing power for far less money nowadays.

20160323_AnemometerAnalog_011

Let me elaborate on some of these points:

Versatility: Arduino Only vs. Anyting, including Arduino

The arduino is a great platform with a great user community. But the Arduino Uno might not be the best choice for this project. A on board microcontroller gives user the option to use this anemometer from whatever platform they chose. Besides: An arduino is a very expensive device even when compared to a quite high-end microcontroller.  32-bit microcontrollers running at frequencies of 40MHz and higher are available for less than 2 or 3 dollars even in small (say, 10 pieces) quantities.  More advanced models might cost, say, 5 dollars.  In comparison, an Atmel Atmega328 as used on the Arduino currently costs CHF 3.10 (USD 3.18 at the time of writing) at Farnell. Not really value for money if you ask me.

Community Driven Developement

There are lots of creat coders out there. I can write decent code but there are plenty of people way better at that than I ever will be.  I see this as an opportuinity to greatly improve this project. Once I get this thing up-and-running I’d like to build a small series and let users share their experience and contribute to the code. Have an idea on how it could be improved? Try it yourself if you have the skills. Share your code if it works. Or share your thoughts and ideas if writing emedded softwar is not for you. So the anemometer could get better and better without having to get new hardware. Just update the firmware.

Next steps

In the weeks to come I will work hard to find a suitable microcontroller and to design and build a board with all that is needed for a stand-alone ultrasonic anemometer.

It’s now ready, click here.

Ultrasonic Anemometer Part 17: Lasercut Mechanical Design

20160228_Projekte_133

In my last two posts I have gone through my new anemometer circuit both in theory and practice. Click here for an overview over my ultrasonic anemometer project.

20160228_Projekte_110

This will be a short post. Unlike most of my other posts, this one will not cover electronics but the physical design of this wind meter. As you can see, the new design all laser cut. At the Zurich Fab Lab I have access to a 75 watts Epilog laser cutter and I recently started playing around with OpenSCAD, an open-source CAD software.

20160228_Projekte_102

I immediately liked the OpenSCAD approach of designing a 3D part in code as opposed to a graphical interface with menus and buttons and the like. Using OpenSCAD is much like writing software. If you’re more familiar with coding than you are with classic CAD tools you will instantly feel at home with OpenSCAD. But it’s pretty much love it or hate it. At least with all the people I’ve talked to.

20160228_Projekte_099

I’ve seen some quite cool boxes  that were just laser cut and then screwed together. I found it quite compelling how you can laser cut your parts, stick them together and maybe use a few screws to hold everything in place. So I decided to give it a try myself.

20160228_Projekte_132

The design is not too complicated with just 6 wooden parts. The material is 5mm in thickness so I looked around for screws and bolt that would be appropriate in size. I also thought that it would be nice to use square bolts both from an optical as well as a mechanical point of view. I learned that square bolts are specified by DIN562 and that M2.5 square bolts measures 5x5x1.6mm – exactly what I needed.

20160228_Projekte_109

So the next thing to find was M2.5 screws. I found nice ones in stainless steel and especially with a Torx (T8 size) head as specified by ISO14580 as well as some matching washers (DIN125).

20160228_Projekte_130

All the tubes are recycled from my last model. Just standard 16mm plastic pipes intended to hold electrical wiring.

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As you can see in the photo above, I’ve tried two different versions for the side parts. The one at the bottom takes the path usually followed: There are cuts that can later fit the screws. The one at the top doesn’t have those cuts and relies on holes being drilled by hand.

20160228_Projekte_127

Drilling those holes turned out to be really easy. After the parts are ready, just stick them together and drill the holes using a drill press. At the fab lab we have such a drill press and the holes were drilled within minutes. I never liked those cuts so for me this was the way to go.

20160228_Projekte_128

The new design gives me a lot of space to mount any PCBs and hides all the wiring between the bottom and top plate. The bottom includes a large square hole so everything inside stays accessible. There are also two small drill holes to mount a 12 volts power supply. This way I can just plug it into the wall which I think might be handy.

20160228_Projekte_135

The OpenSCAD model as well as the Adobe Illustrator (Ai) and PDF files are available as a download from the overview page. Keep in mind that this is one of my first attempts at OpenSCAD, laser cutting and solid CAD modelling alltogether. I’ve tried to keep the CAD model clean and modular but I’m not sure if I succeeded.

20160228_Projekte_100

If you have any questions, suggestions or just your experience with this kind of thing please just post them as comments below. I’m quite new to most of this so I value your feedback and I’m always glad to help if I can.

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Click here to continue to my next post where  I  talk about the second, analog part of the circuit.

Ultrasonic Anemometer Part 15: A new attempt

It’s been about one and a half years since I started out with my ultrasonic anemometer project. Like others before me I had to notice that this a much more demanding project than it appears to be at first. After countless hours of development and testing I have built this Arduino shield. It worked but the reliability of the measurements was never what I had aimed for. The problem was mainly how to figure out the absolute phase of the received signal. So the measurements were always precise – but sometimes off by a full wavelength.  Then I was more or less inactive for most of 2015, mainly due to personal reasons. So the project was kind of stuck but i kept (and keep) getting a lot of encouraging feedback from you folks. I came up with new circuit ideas and decided to pretty much start with an entirely new design and to re-think each and every design choice I had made back then.

20160224_Projekte_074

I will now outline and explain my new design for the send/receive circuit. So the board we are looking at today will handle the signal routing from the microcontroller to the individual transducers and from the transducers back to the amplifier where it is cleaned-up and amplified. There’s the circuit explained step by step.

20160224_Projekte_054

Powerful 12V drive

My last design drove the transducers from a 74HC126 line driver / buffer. This chip has tri-state outputs which made it easy to switch to receive mode by releasing the respective transducer. It also has a strong (for a logic IC) output drive of up to 125mA to switch the capacitive load that the ultrasonic transducers present.

Unfortunately, the drivers only provided a 5V amplitude. Even worse, a more contemporary design would probably operate from a voltage of only 3.3 volts potentially making things worse in the future. So I decided to use a pair of Texas Instrument LM5111 Mosfet drivers. They can handle up to 18 volts so I can run them at a 12 volt input voltage directly. Mostet drivers are designed to drive large capacitative loads so they typically have powerful outputs. Specifically, the LM5111 can sink and source 5 and 3 amps, respectively. Thats more than any logic chip could ever provide. They also share a industry standard pin-out so they are easy to replace should the LM5111 not be readily available from your preferred supplier.

20160225_Projekte_083

Discrete Mosfet Switches

The downside of using a Mosfet driver is that they lack the handy tri-state output. So I had to find another way to release the transducers for receive mode. Readily available  integrated switches and multiplexers don’t have the low Rds-on that we need here. And they are definitely not happy if you’re trying to pass 5 amps through them. So I decided to use a discrete p-channel Mosfet for each transducer. With the gate at -5V the Mosfets conduct in the 0 to 12V range of the driving signal with a on-resistance of far below 1 ohm. So the  strong drive of the LM5111 is not forfeited. With the gate at +5V the Mosfet is not conductive for signals a few volts around ground. So the receiving transducer can swing freely, unaffected by the LM5111.

Op-Amp Amplifier and Filter

The last design used a tuned two-stage common emitter amplifier. I found the design quite beautiful with nice biasing and everything but there were severe drawbacks. Mainly, the LC tank had to be tuned carefully to have it’s center frequency at 40kHz. Coils especially have large tolerances, plus/minus 20% is quite typical. This makes it at least difficult to produce any quantity of these things efficiently. It also takes some test equipment to see if your resonant frequency is correct so the design is not really suitable if you want to distribute it as a kit.

So this design uses a dual op amp at its center. I’ve decided to use a Texas Instrument LMC6482. This is an affordable precision OpAmp with rail-to-rail inputs and outputs that can run from a wide range of supply voltages. One of its main advantages for this application is its slew rate of 1.3 volts per microsecond. This is not especially much or especially little. But it’s just right for us. And this is why: A 40kHz signal with a peak-to-peak amplitude of 10 volts needs a maximum slew rate of 1.25 V/us. So 1.3 volts is enough when operating from a +/- 5V supply. And because it is just enough it will quite effectively block any high frequency noise/spikes that might be present at the input. This is a trick I’ve learned from Horowitz & Hill’s classic Art of Electronics. It’s my first time to use it so I’m exited to see how it works.

For now, the gain of the amplifier is controlled via a pot. Future designs will probably have a fixed gain once I’ve figured out how much gain we need.

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Active Bandpass Filter

Just in case the slew rate limitation of the op amp isn’t enough to get a nice, clean output signal I have planned ahead and used the second op amp from the dual LMC6482 for an active band pass filter.

I’ve played around with an Excel spreadsheet and LT Spice for a few hours trying to find suitable values for the various resistors and capacitors. I’ll do some more experimenting once I can test the results on the real circuit. So don’t pay too much attention to the compoent values of this filter for now.

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Signal Routing via 74HC4052 Dual 4-Channel Multiplexer

This is something that hasn’t changed much. The 74HC4052 has already been part of my last design. I’m now using two of them, one for transmitting and one for receiving.

The first half of the transmitting multiplexer  (IC2 in the schematic) takes the PWM signal from the microcontroller and sends it to the correct Mosfet driver according to the axis and direction signals that control which transducer is sending and receiving. The second half of that IC releases the receiving transducer located opposite of the transmitting one. It does so by providing +5V to the corresponding p-channel mosfet. Pull-down resistors to the -5V rail ensure that the mosfets are conducting when not actively turned off. The +5V release signal can be controlled from a microcontroller pin. Not sure if we need this functionality so a future version might just connect this signal directly to the positive rail.

The first half of the receiving multiplexer (IC1 in the schematic) routes the signal from the receiving transducer to the amplifier input. Note that there are 10k pull-down resistors on the floating leg of the transducers so the received signal is centered around ground. In order to avoid cross-talk, the second half of IC1 actively grounds the transmitting transducer’s signal. In order to make this possible, there are 10k resistors in the signal path before the multiplexer. Given the very hight input impedance of the op amp this should not have a negative effect.

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Power Supply

This circuit runs from a 12V input voltage that is directly used for the mosfet drivers. For everything else, a linear regulator generates a +5V rail. An ICL7660 inverts this voltage to generate a -5V rail. The multiplexers and the op amp then run from this +/- 5 volt supply. This is somewhat of a complication compared to the sleek plus-five-volt-only approach that I took with the Arduino shield. But this gives us a much stronger 12V drive on the transducers even if a future design will run on +/- 3.3 volts. And the split supply allow for easy control of the discrete p-channel mosfet switches and ground referenced signals in the receiving circuit.

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On-board Microcontroller

I’ve included a PIC16F1936 on the board. No, I don’t have any plans to use a PIC16 in my final design. I just thought it is convenient to generate the singals necessary for testing right on the board. I do consider using a dedicated on board microcontroller in my final design. I see several advantages of doing so. The design would no longer be Arduino specific. You could still interface it to an Arduino using a  standard I2C or SPI interface. But you could also interface it to a Raspberry Pi or just about anything else. That would make it much more flexible and versatile. And even if you interface it to an Arduino the Arduino is free to focus on other things than handling the technical details of running the wind meter. With the shield one had to pay close attention not to upset the timing by running other code. So a design with an on-board chip would be easier to use as well.  Cost would not really be an issue since powerful microcontrollers are available for around 2$ even in modest quantities.  Feel free to share your thoughts on this. I’m currently looking at different architectures but no decision has been made yet.

This is it for now. In my next post I’ll share my test results with this circuit. The Eagle files and PDFs are available as a download on the project overview page.  As always I very much appreciate your comments and suggestions.

Arduino MPPT Solar Charger Shield – Software

There have been two previous posts on this project: one on the concept and the hardware and one on hardware testing. You probably want to check them out first if you’re not yet familiar with this project. Or even better: Click here for an overview over this project.

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Maintaining an input voltage of 17 volts even if that means a lower-than-desirable voltage at the output

Now that we know that we have a functioning MPPT solar charger we are ready to talk about the software (or the sketch as the Arduino folks call it). It’s quite simple, really. So this will be a short post. And yes, you can download the sketch. There is a link at the end of this post. As always, I appreciate any feedback, comments and the like.

There is a number of basic tasks the arduino needs to perform in order for this shield to be useful. I’ll go through them one by one.

Controlling the DC-DC converter

At the heart of this project there is a synchronous step-down (or buck) DC-DC converter that is controlled by a PWM signal from the arduino. So one of the tasks is to set the frequency and duty cycle of that PWM signal.

We let the PWM signal run at the maximum frequency the arduino allows with an 8 bit resulution. Thats simply 16MHz (the Arduino’s frequency) divided by 256 (the 8 bit resolution), or 62.5 kHz. So the prescaler will be 1.

As you can see from the shields’s schematic, we need to output the PWM signal from Pin 6 (by the Arduino’s pin numbering, not Atmel’s). In order to do this kind of low-level stuff you’ll have to read the Atmega328’s data sheet. There is usually no Arduino-ish shortcut if you really need to controll what’s going on.

Luckily it’s just a few lines of code to set things up. All in the function buck_setup(). There are three more little functions to control the DC-DC controller once it’s set up:

buck_enable() and buck_disable() are very simple and just turn it on and off, respectively. buck_duty(uint8_t duty) is only slightly more involved. It changes the duty cycle to the value you pass to it. Besides that it ensures that the duty cycle stays within certain limits.

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Test setup with resistor-based dummy load

You don’t want it to go to 100% since in order to keep the bootstrap capacitor C6 charged you need a little bit of off-time. In order to drive the upper FET you need a voltage higher than the panel’s voltage and that’s exactly what C6 is for. So we enforce an upper limit on the duty cycle.

Likewise, you don’t want your duty cycle to go below 50% because in that case you would be pumping energy from the battery to the pannel. A synchronous step-down converter is basically the same thing as a synchronous step-up (aka boost) converter with input and output confused. So we also want to enforce a lower limit on the duty cycle.

The upper and lower limits are set through the #defines DUTY_CYCLE_MINIMUM and DUTY_CYCLE_MAXIMUM.

Measuring voltage and current

The shield has all the hardware necessary to measure both voltage and current both at the input as well as on the output. We’ll just need to write some simple software to make good use of that hardware.

Unlike with the PWM singal where we had to do some low-level bit fiddling ourselfs we can just rely on convenient Arduino library functions to do the job. Basically, analogRead() is all we need here.

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Nicely regulating so that the input stays at 17 volts

I’ve written a function called read_values() that uses analogRead() to read all 4 values (input voltage, output voltage, input current and output current) 16 times each, averages the results and converts the ADC reading to proper voltages and currents.

The necessary multipliers are defined as floats in VIN_MULTIPLIER, VOUT_MULTIPLIER, IIN_MULTIPLIER and IOUT_MULTIPLIER. I’m doing all the voltage and current measurements in floating math. Yes, this is not at all efficient but we don’t need the Arduino’s computational power for anything else most of the time so this is fine here. Just keep in mind that you can save a lot of resources here if you ever need to do so.

Displaying voltage and current on the LCD

Our hardware also involves a 2 lines x 16 characters LCD so we can show the world what we are measuring. Again, we can rely on standard Arduino functionality to do the job. There is an LCD library that does everything we need.

So my function write_display() can focus entirely on formatting. The upper line shows the voltages in Volts, the lower line shows the currents in Milliamps. The input is on the left hand side of the display, the output on the right.

Deciding what to do

In the first section we’ve discussed the functions necessary to controll the DC-DC converter. But in order to use those functions, the Arduino needs to first decide what to do.

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66% duty cycle at 21V input voltage gives the desired 13.8V at the output

This is where the function buck_update() comes into play. You could consider this the heart of this sketch. This is where all the relevant decisions are made. When to turn the converter on, when to turn it off, when to increase the duty cycle, when to decrease it… You get the idea.

The behaviour of buck_update() is controlled by 8 #defines. I list them here together with the values I have used:

#define ENABLE_VOLTAGE 18.0
#define DISABLE_VOLTAGE 15.0
#define INPUT_TARGET_VOLTAGE 17.0
#define OUTPUT_TARGET_VOLTAGE_LOW 13.8
#define OUTPUT_TARGET_VOLTAGE_HIGH 13.9
#define INPUT_CURRENT_LIMIT 2000.0
#define OUTPUT_CURRENT_LIMIT 3000.0
#define INPUT_CURRENT_MINIMUM 0.0

I think they are quite self-explanatory, especially if you look at how they are used inside buck_update. It’s quite simple: If the panel’s voltage rises above 18V, turn the converter on. Once the converter is on, try to archieve a panel voltage of 17V without exceeding 13.9V at the output. If the panel’s voltage drops below 15V turn the converter off again.

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At 55% duty cycle with a 16.9V input voltage we’re getting only around 9.2V at the output

Besides that the function is also looking at the input and output current and makes sure certain limits are not exceeded. But with a 30W panel it should never be possible to reach those limits anyway.

Putting it all together

Now all we need to do in the loop() function is calling read_values(), buck_update() and write_display(). Since writing to the LCD is quite slow we are only doing it every 32nd time we read the values and update the PWM signal.

With this sketch I’ve hooked the MPPT Solar Charger up to my lab power supply. (a Keysight E3645A, my newest toy *g*) and my extremely simple but occasionally useful resistor-based dummy load.

The enable and disable voltages are simple and work as expected. Maximum output volage is also not tricky. If the voltage at the output goes too high, the duty cycle is decreased and everything is fine again.

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There’s not much to photograph when you’re writing and testing software

More interesting was to see how the shield would regulate when faced with a limited current budget at the input. For that the supply was set to a voltage of 21V (about a 12V solar panel’s open-circuit voltage) with a current limit of 100mA to 500mA. That’s quite a nasty supply, quite a bit trickier to handle than a real solar panel. Try to pull just a bit too much current and the voltage will drop to zero…

Also, the resistors at the output are not a realistic load for the converter. A car battery will pull no current at 12 volts or so (unless overly discharged) but will quickly start to sink large currents when the voltage goes just a bit higher and the battery is charging.

But I think the setup is good enough to test the sketch. And it handles the challenge quite well. With all resistors on (i.e a 100/6 ohms load) and a 300mA current limit, the input voltage sits at 17V (our target input voltage) while 9.25V appear at the output. At 400mA, the output voltage rises to 10.7V with the input still at 17V. At 600mA the input is still at 17V but with the output now at 13.15V. If I take the current limit even higher, the output voltage rises to 13.82V but not any higher, just as we want. The input voltage rises to 21V (since this is a lab supply and not a panel) with a corresponding drop in current to 530mA.

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Quite realistic: The charger is pulling as much current as it can with the current limit at 530mA and reaches an output voltage just above 12 volts

I’m honestly quite happy with the project as it is now. The idea definitely works and I’m motivated to design a new, deployable version with some fancy features that will use much less power at the same time. I’ve already done quite some work on that new version but it will take another few weeks until I get to describe that project here.

Until then I will show you some other, smaller projects that I’ve already finished but didn’t have time to document yet. So you will first see a number of smaller, simpler projects over the next few weeks.

Before I forget: There’s the Arduino sketch for download. And click here for an overview over this project.

Update: Now there’s an entirely new design.

Arduino MPPT Solar Charger Shield – Testing

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First tests are being performed on the Solar Charger Shield

In my last post I’ve introduced a proof-of-concept Arduino solar charger shield. I went through the hardware as well as the way it works – or at least is intended to work. It was prominently linked on dangerousprototypes.com as well as some other sites and got quite a bit of publicity as a result. Thank you all for sharing this post.

By the way: here’s an overview over all posts on this project.

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DUT hooked up to my Constant Current Dummy Load

This time I’ll show you some results of the testing that I’ve done. The basic test setup is shown above: The solar charger is hooked up to my home-brew constant current dummy load, together with a pair of DMMs at the output in order to precisely monitor output voltage and current. For the input I’m relying on the lab supply to provide these measurements. And yes, the shield does its own measurements of both input and output currents and voltages. Once calibrated they are even quite accurate but I won’t rely on them for things as calculating the converter’s efficiency.

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Vin=17V, no load

But first we need to see if our converter works at all. As the scope screenshot above demonstrates – it does. For all the tests shown in this post, the input voltage was provided by a lab supply set to 17 volts. So we’re not yet testing the software and its capability to draw just the right amount of current.

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Vin=17V, no load

As you can see, since the converter can draw any (reasonable) current at the input, it provides the maximum voltage (set in software) of 13.8V at its output. In order to do that, the upper FET is on approximately 80% of the time. The signals all seem nice an clean and there is no noticable ripple at the output at 1V/div and no load. And the switching frequency is 62.5kHz (16MHz / 256) as expected.

1Amp_closeup
Vin=17V, Iout=1A

At 1 Amp output current, the software has to increase the duty cycle somewhat to 82% (above) and even further to 84% at 2A (below). Besides that, everything still looks very similar under load conditions.

2A_closeup
Vin=17V, Iout=2A

In my last post I’ve raised the question if the FET driver’s dead time of 540ns according to the datasheet is not a bit excessive. Well, let’s look at the dead time on the scope. First of all we can observe that the dead time of the IR2104 is in line with the data sheet. I don’t have it in front of me right now to check the min/max specs but the measured 522ns seem reasonably close to the theoretical 540ns.

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The IR2104 has a built-in dead time of 540ns according to the data sheet. We’re measuring 522ns here – close enough.

From looking at the screen shot above, the dead time does seem a bit long. The reason dead time is introduced is to prevent shoot-through. If both FETs are on there is a short-circuit from the input to ground. Together with the input capacity and the FETs low Rds-on, very large currents could flow, possibly destroying the FETs and at least detoriating efficiency. So introducing a bit of time when both transistors are off seems reasonable. But too much of it also costs efficiency since current has to flow through the diode instead of the lower FET. The main reason for using a synchronous topology is to prevent this in order to gain efficiency. So obviously one has to find a balance. I think here we’re a bit far on the conservative side but never mind for now.

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Let some current flow

So now that our converter is working, let’s take a look at efficiency. I’ve measured the efficiency at output currents ranging from 100mA to 2.6A in 100mA steps with the input voltage at 17V. I didn’t use the sense-wires connections on the lab supply so I had to compensate for the voltage drop on the input leads manually.

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There was a drop of up to 220mV on the input leads so the voltage reading of the lab supply is not quite accurate

The results are quite impressive:

  • 95.5% @ 100mA (worst)
  • 96.9% @ 200mA
  • 97.9% @ 400mA
  • 98.1% @ 800mA (best)
  • 97.1% @ 1600mA
  • 95.7% at 2600mA

So the efficiency is constantly at a very high 95.5% and better over the entire current range of interest.

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This little dummy load is really useful

The resulting loss is less than 1.6 Watts @ 2.6A out. As a result, the shield never gets hot, even when running at this power level for a while.

Note that this is quite a bit more power than the converter was designed for. 37W as opposed to the 30W I designed it for. The FETs could even handle much more. The limiting factor would likely be the coil reaching saturation. Unfortunately my lab supply doesn’t supply any more than 2.2A so I can’t push it any further.

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Shield performs well even beyond 30W spec

 

One thing to note is that these efficiency figures don’t take into account the power consumed by the arduino, the display, the fet driver, current monitoring ICs and so on. This brings us to the last topic for now: The current consumed by the various components. I did these measurements mainly in order to understand how to limit power consumption in a later version. To me, this shield is only a proof of concept and so reducing power consumption was never an issue.

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Basic test setup

Here are the results:

  • Arduino: 48.7mA
  • LCD backlight: 8.9mA
  • LCD excluding backlight: 1.148mA
  • FET driver (standby): 106.56uA
  • FET driver (62.5kHz, Iout=0): 2847uA
  • FET driver (62.5kHz, Iout=2.5A): 2937uA
  • Current sensors (each): 48.6uA

So the arduino itself is using up the lion’s share of current. Next comes the LCD backlight. Nothing unexpected so far. The LCD without backlight still consumes a considerable 1.15mA, no matter if it’s on or off. The FET driver uses around 2.9mA when on and only about 0.1mA when off. Output current only has a minor impact. The current sensors don’t use up much – less than 0.1mA for both.

Check out my next post for a closer look at the software or here for an overview over this project.

Arduino MPPT Solar Charger Shield

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A friend has approached me regarding his solar project. He wants to install a solar panel together with a battery and an inverter in order to have power at his allotment garden. He had looked at a hobbyist project where an arduino was used to build a MPPT (maximum point of power tracking) charge controller. I took a look at the design, liked a lot of what I saw and decided to build something similar.

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The basic idea behind an MPPT solar charger is simple. A solar panel has a certain voltage (in the region of 17 to 18 volts for a 12 volts pannel, somwhat dependent on temperature) at which it provides most power. So as long as the battery needs charging, you want to pull just as much current to reach this voltage. But once the battery is full you need to avoid overcharging the battery. So you want to maintain a maximum voltage for your battery (somewhere around 13.8 volts for a 12 volt lead acid battery) and no longer care about the pannel’s voltage.

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So the charger needs to convert an input voltage of 17-18V to an output voltage of 12-14V as efficiently as possible. Obviously, a step-down (aka buck) switching converter is ideally suited for the job. However, a typical DC-DC converter is designed to maintain a stable voltage at it’s output, independent of it’s input voltage. As described above, our requirements here are different.

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Switching converters are controlled by the duty cycle of a (typically) fixed-frequency PWM signal. So a microcontroller could be used to do the job. In most applications, this wouldn’t work that well because a microcontroller would be too slow to react to sudden changes in load or input voltage. But this is not much of a concern in our solar application: Sun intensity changes within seconds at best and the battery will absorb any sudden changes in load. So if we adjust our duty cycle a few times per second we’ll be more than fine. And that’s easy to do with a microcontroller.

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The next step was to figure out at which frequency to run our converter. An arduino runns at 16MHz. At a 8-bit resolution, this gives us a maximum PWM frequency of 62.5kHz. That’s a pretty slow speed for a switching DC-DC converter nowadays. Most modern designs run in the hundreds of kHz to a few MHz. The main reason of using higher and higher switching frequencies is size. The higher the frequency, the smaller the inductor can be. For us, using a somewhat bigger inductor is totally acceptable. And in terms of efficiency, a lower frequency is even preferable since it reduces switching losses.

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The project here is intended mainly as a proof on concept. I expect it to be fully functional but it will consume quite a bit of power while sitting idle. The display (including backlight) is always on, the same goes for all the other components. But the main drain on the battery will be the Arduino itself which consumes around 50mA when running at 16MHz. That might not sound like much but it will add up during the many hours the solar panel doesn’t produce any power. The system will be installed in Zürich, Switzerland so you can’t count on having 8 hours of sunshine every day. In winter, there might be snow on the panel, preventing it from producing anything for weeks in an extreme case. So a productive system should draw hardly any current (say <1mA) when not doing anything useful.

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At least for now, the we’ll be using a 30W 12V monocrystaline panel and a 45Ah car battery. So I’ve scaled this converter to comfortably handle 30W input power which translates to about 1.8 amps at the input and 2.5 amps at the output.

As deba168’s design, I’m using a synchronous buck topology. If you’re new to switchers, you might want to check out this wiki page. If you’re serious about designing your own you might want to read Sanjaya Maniktala’s ‘Switching Power Supplies A – Z’, it’s a great book. I’ve also read his other two books on the topic but this is the one I love the most, especially to start with. I’m also using the same half bridge driver (IR2104) even though I find the 540ns off time somewhat excessive. But I like the enable/pwm input signals as opposed to having to drive each fet individually and I found this feature to be somewhat rare.

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Apart from that I’ve really done my own design, mainly using parts I’ve still had from previous projects. As most stuff I build, it’s entirely SMD, except for the input and output capacitors. Not only are SMS designs smaller in size. The parts are much easier to source (and often cheaper) than conventional through-hole components nowadays. And contrary to popular belief, with a bit of practice I find them easier and faster to solder.

The FETs are IPB136N08N3, a quite large surface-mount type that I use quite frequently. They have a 11mOhms Rds-on resistance which will be great for efficiency. They are also easy to drive in terms of gate capacitance. Probably a bit oversized for the 2.5 amps we’re trying to switch here but I still have some here and they’re not expensive, around 70 cents each. The inductor is a 100uH Coilcraft MSS1583 with a resistance of 0.103 ohms and a 2.8A current rating. 100uH is a bit much at full load, 68uH would easily do. But the system will spend most time at moderate loads (remember, this is not California). I’ve ordered a 68uH as well and intend to use it for a later design or maybe to see what difference it makes. Input and output caps are quite a bit oversized as well, 680uF 35V at the input and 820uH 25V at the output. They are from the Panasonic FR series which I like using for my switchers since they work well at frequencies up to a few hundred kHz while being afordable and having very high ripple current ratings.

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I’m doing voltage and current sensing at both input and output. I’ve decided to use conventional high-side, shunt resistor based current sensing. The Texas INA213 are fairly precise, work up to 26 volts and have a fixed gain of 50. Also here, I still had some left over from my dummy load project. Most components are much cheaper if you buy 10 in stead of just one or two so I tend to buy 10 😉

I’ve also added a standard 2×16 characters LCD display so I can see what’s going on. And you may have noticed that I’ve put a zero ohms resistor at several places. This will enable me to easily measure current consumption of the respective sub-circuit. As mentioned before, current consumption will play a major role in the final design so I’m interested to see how much juice is used by certain components under real-life conditions.

Besided the connectors for the panel and the battery, I have added a separate connector for the power supply. This is handy for early testing and programming. Just connecting this supply will power up the entire system. The arduino, the display, the converter and all. But there is not yet any load at the converter’s output and no supply at it’s input. So I can start programming the Arduino, start measuring and displaying voltages and currents and even turn on the converter to see if everything behaves as expected. And since there is nothing at the converter’s input and output, not much can go wrong. I don’t risk blowing up the FETs due to a bug in the program or a problem with the board. Only once I’m confident that everything works as expected I will connect a panel and a battery. At that point, the 12V input can just be connected to the battery as well.

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I’ve written a simple sketch for the Arduino that measures voltage and current at the input and output and displays the result on the LCD. Once the input voltage exceeds a certain threshold, it will enable the half bridge driver and start switching. It starts at a duty cycle that will produce an output voltage equal to the current battery voltage. That means that no current will flow to the battery yet so the converter can start up with no load. Once the switcher is turned on, the Arduino will adjust the duty cycle about 4 times a second. If the input voltage is above its optimum and the battery has not yet reached its maximum voltage, the duty cycle will be increased by 1/255. If either the battery voltage is too high or the input voltage is below its optimum, the duty cycle is decreased by 1/255. There are also some checks for overcurrent at the input and output.

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The switcher is turned off when the input voltage or the output current falls below a pre-defined threshold. This is a synchronous converter so current can flow back from the battery to the panel. We can’t just wait for the input voltage to fall. As long as the switcher is on, the input will never fall because energy is pumped from the battery to the panel. A synchronous buck converter is just the same as a synchronous boost converter with its inputs and outputs inverted. So we need to make sure current is actually flowing to the battery. Luckily, a car battery will always draw a clearly non-zero current at 13.8 volts, even when fully charged. So when current stops flowing to the battery, we know the panel is no longer able to provide any power and we can or rather must turn the converter off.

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This post ist getting rather long so I’ll stop here and will write another post later about how the circuit has been performing and what I have learned so far. I guess this project will turn into a little series, maybe with further (and hopefully improved) versions being developped. Looking forward to that.

Before I forget: Here’s the eagle files as well as schematic and layout PDFs as a zip file: SolarCharger_Rev1.

Update: Click here to see how the shield performs or here for an overview over this project.

Update 2: Now there is an entirely new design.

USB Boost Converter

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Finished 5V to 12V USB boost converter

I frequently need a low-power supply to run a microcontroller system. Typically, one uses a lab power for such purposes. But at least on the desk where I do the programming I don’t have one. Since these systems typically consume little current it would be handy to be able to power them from USB. Most of my devices have on-board regulators so the voltage is rather uncritical. For 3.3 volt devices, the 5V from USB is just right. But others have a 5V regulator so they need a higher supply voltage. And even others might even need 12 volts.

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Fully assembled PCB

So I decided to build a small low-power boost converter with a USB plug on its input. The output voltage is set by a pair of resistors. So once built the output voltage is fix but my idea is to build several of them anyway. So some will produce 12V while others will produce 7.5V. The latter is intended to power all those systems with on-board 5V regulators. Of course, you could use a trimmer or pot if you wanted a variable voltage version. However, the feedback loop requires a capacitor for stability and its value also depends on output voltage. You might well find a value that results in stable operation over a say 6 – 12V range, but I haven’t tried that.

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Bottom side

I had a look for a suitable integrated switcher IC and found the Texas Instruments LMR62014. It comes in a small SOT23-5 package. It switches at a high frequency of 1.6MHz which will keep the other components small, too. It switches up to 1.4 amps. It’s easy to use. And even afordable, around 1.50 a piece. The datasheet is very helpful when it comes to PCB layout. It includes a two-layer sample layout that works even with hobbyist-sized components (0805, 1206 for the input and output capacitors).

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Not a bad heat sink

Generally, layout is important with switch-mode DC-DC converters. Their operation requires switching square-wave power signals (as opposed to just logical-level signals where little current flows). And that requires careful layout in order to minimize stray inductance, mainly. Things are more forgiving when you work with relatively slow (say 100kHz) switchers but get much more demanding when switching at higher frequencies. There has been a steady trend to ever-higher frequencies and 1.6MHz is fairly high even by 2015 standards. So I was very happy to have a nice layout example to start with.

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Top side

As you can see from the photo above, the thing is small, only 26 x 14mm. Also note how the layout makes the components magically fit together without any long traces and few vias.

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Home brew constant current dummy load in action

So far, I’ve built two units, one running at 12V, the other at 7.5V. Theoretically, one should be able to pull 580mA and 930mA from them, respectively. Of course, these are theoretical figures assuming no losses. Also, the 1.4A rating on the IC is likely the current limit at the top of the switching cycle (the datasheet will tell you or course but I don’t have the PDF open right now), not an average. And thermal considerations might also put limits on continuous currents. More on that later. And don’t expect to be able to pull 1.4A from a random USB port (which would violate the USB specifications anyway). But given my use-case for these things I’m entirely happy if I can pull a 100mA or so. And that should work comfortably.

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Switcher IC: 70 degrees @ 200mA
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Diode: 58 degrees @ 200mA
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Coil: 50 degrees @ 200mA

I’ve pushed both versions to their respective limits on the bench, using a stiff 5V supply and my home-brew constant current dummy load (link). With case temperatures approaching 100 degrees centigrade I was able to pull around 250mA of continuous current from the 12V version. The ICs include thermal limiting so you don’t need to worry too much about damaging them when performing this kind of tests. As you can see on the photos, I did these tests with the naked PCBs sitting in a vise which probabely made a not-so-bad heatsink for the board as a whole.

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Output voltage folds back when the switcher gets too hot

I’ve encountered slight stability problems with the 12V version (but not with the 7.5V one). There is some oscillation at currents above 200mA or so. Changing the value of the compensation capacitor changed the frequency and amplitude but I haven’t managed to get rid of it entirely. But anyway, I won’t run them at 200mA so I haven’t put much more effort into this.

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Close up of the final product

The finished units have a USB wire on the input and a arduino-compatible plug on the output. To protect against short-circuits I’ve put them in a piece of shrinking hose which is a bit of a themal nightmare of course. There is also a voltage drop over the USB cable which means the input voltage seen by the converter is below 5V even with a perfectly stiff USB port. Which in turn means more work for our converter, making things worse.

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Shrinking hose doesn’t help in keeping it cool

I have frequently used the 7.5V version to power my Ultrasonic Anemometer which pulls around 60mA. That’s the kind of application that I had in mind for this little device and it works well for that. It hardly gets warm at all and provides reliable power on my desk without the need for a lab power supply.

Attached the Eagle files as well as a PDF of the schematic and layout: USB_BoostConverter