Monday, September 15, 2014

Pi Power destructive testing report

I took some time this evening and pressed Pi Power to, and beyond, its limits.

First, one thing I discovered is that the failure mode that I observed was that the MOSFET shorts. That causes the input voltage to pass through unmodified to the output voltage, which would likely destroy the Pi. I think a follow-on version of Pi Power will need to add an output over-voltage protection circuit of some sort. That will, however, raise the price.

Second, it looks like I am going to need to de-rate the top end of the voltage range. As the input voltage increases, so does the switching frequency. At 14 volts, the frequency is north of 300 kHz. That's enough that the capacitance of the MOSFET (that is, its maximum switching speed) starts to contribute excessive power dissipation, causing it to heat up. 2 amps at 15 volt input was enough to blow the MOSFET after a few minutes. At 14 volts, it was still hanging on.

I also pressed Pi Power with 9 volts input to see where the current overload protection would trip. When I tried it before, I was using a weaker 12 volt power supply which wasn't able to get that far. I found that the current protection kicks in at around 4.25 amps. The current limit resistor value of 39 kΩ came out of an online TI design tool. I did the math on the datasheet and came up with a value closer to 22 kΩ, and posed a question to StackOverflow about it and never got an answer. But it looks like my calculations were more correct than TI's. The question is whether to change the value in the design to reduce the current limit to be more in line with the limitations of the circuit, or leave it high so that it basically just protects against dead shorts.

Still, in most cases I've personally observed, the current draw of a reasonably loaded Raspberry Pi is closer to 1A than 2. And at that load, with an input voltage of 6-14 volts, Pi Power does just fine.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

µBoost user guide

This is the permanent spot for the µBoost user guide.

The µBoost is a battery powered USB power supply. It can supply up to 1A @ 5V from 3 primary cells (AA, C or D) or up to 500 mA from 2 primary cells.

You can use any supply voltage as long as it is lower than 5 volts. That means that you can use a LiPoly, NiCd, NiMh or any other chemistry you like.

Use of primary cells at more than 1A of current draw is not recommended. The batteries' internal resistance will cause them to get quite hot. Additionally, the higher the current draw, the less energy the batteries will deliver before they die (the extra energy is lost as heat). This is not a problem with most secondary battery chemistries, such as NiMh, Lion or LiPoly. If you wish, you can add a battery charger in parallel with the battery and µBoost.

The quiescent current of the converter (that is, its consumption with no load) is around 140 µA, which means that without being used, a set of AA batteries would last around 2 years.

The lower the input voltage, the hotter the MOSFET, diode and inductor will get during high current operation. It is not recommended to pull 1A with a 3 volt (2 battery) supply. Even if this weren't excessive switch current for the MOSFET, it would require pulling too much current from the primary cells than is good for them. If you heat up primary or secondary cells they can leak or explode.

Theory of operation

The µBoost is built around an NCP1450 boost converter controller with an external MOSFET switch. Because the switch is external, the controller itself has no limit on how much current it can switch (or supply). The MOSFET itself has a maximum drain current rating of a massive 8 amps, but in a boost converter arrangement the switching current is generally much higher than the output current rating. The same is true of the Schottky diode, which is rated at 3 amps and a maximum forward voltage drop of 0.5 V and the inductor, which is rated for over 2 amps.

A boost converter works because an inductor resists a change in the current flowing through it by generating a voltage. The inductor is connected between the line and load. Immediately after the inductor is a switch between the inductor's output and ground (in this case, the switch is the MOSFET). When the switch is closed, the inductor is connected across the input voltage, and it is effectively "charged." When the switch is opened, the current flow through the inductor is interrupted. The inductor attempts to "correct" this state of affairs by generating a high(er) voltage. That voltage passes through the diode to the load. When the switch is closed, the diode is reverse-biased and blocks current flow the "wrong" way from the load. The output filter capacitor supplies the load during this time.

The two data lines have resistor voltage dividers. These dividers are set to provide a constant voltage to the data pins. These voltages tell Apple iDevices the ampacity of the charger. The spec for these voltages is unpublished, but was discovered by the good folks at AdaFruit.

The only difference between the 500 mA circuit and the 1A circuit is the high side D+ resistors. It is 75k for 1A of charge current and 43k for 500 mA.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Low power breakthrough

I've made a few battery powered projects since I've started, and the one constant in all of them is that none of them had a power switch. All of them (that had a microcontroller), went to sleep and used either a button interrupt or a timer to wake up again.

I've discovered that all of this time I was missing a crucial power-saving step.

One of the things I'd been doing in setup() was turning off all of the excess peripherals in the PRR - the Power Reduction Register. It turns out, however, that this is insufficient to turn the A/D converter off completely. You also must (first) clear the ADEN bit in ADCSRA. Not doing so wastes around 250 µA. It doesn't sound like a lot, but for the blinky earrings, which are powered by a CR1225, that is enough to kill the battery in about a week rather than allowing it to sit powered off basically for the shelf life of the battery. In the Crazy Clock, it's enough to reduce the (estimated) battery life from 18 months or so down to 3.

So... Before you put an AVR to sleep, clear the ADEN bit in ADCSRA and then set as many bits as you can in PRR.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Measure with a micrometer, mark with chalk, cut with an axe.

I happened to see a link to this from Dave over at eevblog. TL;DR, it's a 5 ppm mechanical wristwatch for $800K.

That CNN says it keeps "perfect" time is laughable, but I'll give them that 5 ppm is certainly a high standard for a purely mechanical movement.

But it got me thinking... I've made all the crazy clocks I can think of... but just how accurate could a lavet stepper clock be?

Well, the going rate on eBay for a rubidium standard with 10 MHz output is around $180 or so. A simple firmware tweak should give us the same 10 Hz interrupt source: 10 MHz with a prescale of 16 is 625 kHz. 625 kHz divided by 1024 is 61 5/128, so 5 cycles of 62 and 123 cycles of 61 would be correct.

The result would be a lavet stepper clock that ticked with an accuracy of better than one part per billion. It would be no more than a tenth of a second off per century.

Of course, it wouldn't be synchronized to anything - it would depend on the user to actually point the hands to the right spot. But as long as it had power, you could count on it being a whole lot more accurate than a wristwatch 3.5 orders of magnitude more expensive.

You could do the same thing with GPS much cheaper, of course. You wouldn't even need a microcontroller. GPS modules have synchronized PPS outputs. You could use a flip-flop and two AND gates to turn the PPS output into alternating positive pulses on the two coil wires. If the PPS pulse isn't long enough, then you might need to add a pulse stretcher, but even then a microcontroller is still overkill.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

More crazy clock work

I actually tested the firmware with a 10 based crystal (2.000 MHz). Firstly, the power savings over 4.096 MHz wasn't really worth writing home about. Saving more power would probably require further reducing the system clock frequency from 500/512 kHz, but if you do that, then you can't use an ordinary AVR programmer with an 400 kHz SPI clock. Surprisingly, the ATTiny85 retains the programmed clock divider during RESET rather than reverting to the fused divider value. So just for my own convenience, I'm sticking with 500/512 kHz, which still results in a single AA battery lasting somewhere around 6 months, if I'm doing the math right.

Anyway, after finding and fixing a minor bug, I've confirmed that the long term accuracy with a ten based crystal instead of a 2 based crystal is still good, so my fractional OCR0A mechanism works. Yay!

However, in looking at the pulse timing on my oscilloscope, I discovered something that I think I'll have to address.

Whenever you are using semiconductors to switch a large inductor on or off (this applies with motors, relays, solenoids... anything with a big coil), you need to deal with the coil collapse voltage that will be induced the moment you switch the transistor off. The usual solution is a reverse-biased diode across the coil, which will allow the diode to conduct when the coil commutates and prevent a large negative voltage from appearing at the transistor.

What I saw on the scope was that despite the presence of the diode, there was still a -1 volt pulse when the coil was switched off. Turns out, I'm using a 1N4148, and the forward voltage drop is about 1 volt.

The issue I see is that the absolute maximum section of the ATTiny85 datasheet says that the limit for any pin is -0.5 volts.

Now, to be fair, I think Atmel really means for that to apply to pins configured as inputs. It's unclear what impact there might be to an induced negative voltage spike like that on an output pin set LOW.

This was never an issue before because in most cases, I've used a transistor to switch the power on and off, and in a typical low-side NPN switching arrangement, the flyback diode is intended to keep the voltage spike under the collector-emitter breakdown voltage, which is always much higher than any reasonable diode forward voltage rating.

Fortunately, the solution is straightforward - pick a better diode. A Schottky diode can be had with a forward voltage of only 0.5 volts, and they make them in the same SOD-323 footprint. It may not - strictly speaking - be necessary to cut that spike in half given that the pin is configured as an output rather than an input, but it's probably good engineering anyway.

Also, I've added another firmware option. This one is a bit more prankish. It runs 10% fast for 12 hours, then 10% slow for 12 hours. It makes the days just fly by! For this one, it actually matters when you put the battery in. The controller has no idea where the actual hands on the clock are pointing - it's just a pulse source. So when the battery goes in, that marks the start of the 12 hour fast period.

EDIT: I asked the flyback diode question over on StackOverflow and it appears that this is not going to be a big deal. The worst case scenario is 1 volt going through a 100 ohm resistor, which would only be a potential of 10 mA on pins designed to source or sink up to 40 mA each.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Crazy Clock user guide

This page is the permanent home for the Crazy Clock user's guide. It will be updated whenever changes are made. The current version of the board is v0.2. The board history:

  • v0.1 - Prototype
  • v0.2 - Changed crystal to HC-49 through-hole footprint and reduced size
  • v0.3 - Slight size reduction
  • v0.4 - Slight size reduction - downgraded over-spec'd parts.
  • v0.5 - Trade out ceramic for tantalum caps in boost section. Dramatic size reduction.
The crazy clock comes as either a bare controller board which you can use to retrofit an existing clock movement or as a complete movement with the crazy clock controller installed in place of the original (boring) controller.

To retrofit an existing clock movement, carefully disassemble the movement and remove the stepper coil and controller board, which should be a single assembly that can be easily removed. The board should be on the bottom and there should be two bare contact patches which touch two contacts that come from the battery. Two other points on the board should be soldered (directly or indirectly) to the two ends of the coil wire. For best results, do not disturb the soldered joints of those wires. Instead, use a Dremmel or an Exacto knife and cut the traces leading away from the two coil wire solder patches and the two battery contact patches. Solder 30 gauge wires to each. For best results, use a dab of hot glue to secure the wires to the board as a strain relief. Reinstall the board, routing the wires carefully to avoid interfering with any moving parts of the movement. Connect the ends of the wires to the battery and clock terminals on the crazy clock controller board. Tuck the controller board in an out-of-the-way spot inside the movement insuring that neither it nor any of the wires will interfere with any of the movement's moving parts. Alternatively, you can route the wires outside of the movement enclosure and use foam tape to secure the controller externally (doing it this way is less stealthy, but makes reprogramming the controller much easier). There's an instructional video that shows the major points of the process.

The crazy clock will run for around 18 months or so on a single AA battery, depending on the particular clock movement into which it's installed. Simply replace the battery when the clock stops. Other than the changes made to how the clock operates, actual use of it is exactly the same as the original movement. You set the time by rotating the set knob and replace and install the AA battery in the same manner as before.

Depending on which firmware you selected, your clock will behave differently from a normal clock, but should still keep average time accurate to within a minute per month (20 ppm), so long as the clock is kept near room temperature. When exposed to extreme temperature swings, you can expect the accuracy to suffer.

If you change your mind, you can re-flash the firmware. You may need to disconnect (one lead of) the stepper coil from the clock terminal before you do so, however, as the stepper pins are also used for programming. The stepper coil is a low impedance load, and that might interfere with the programmer's ability to properly drive the pins. The firmware files are available at the Crazy Clock repository on Github. You will need a pogo pin programming adapter and an AVR programmer. You'll also need the Arduino IDE, and you'll need to add ATTiny support to it. If you want to build your own Crazy Clock controller from scratch, you'll need to fuse your ATTiny before programming it. The correct fuse settings are low:0x7D, high:0xDF and extended:0xFF. An ATTiny45 has sufficient flash memory for any of the firmware loads, and an ATTiny25 has enough for all of them except the "Crazy clock."

You can build a crazy clock equivalent on a breadboard or some other equivalent prototyping system. If you do, you will either need to use a SOT-23-5 breakout board for the NCP1402, a ready-made boost converter breakout, or just dispense with the boost converter and use some other power supply. Two AA batteries in series would work fine, as would a CR2032 (but it would only last around a month).

Testing & Troubleshooting

Testing the controller is quite simple. Attach a two-lead, bi-color LED, such as this one, to the "clock" terminal. In fact, the leads on a 5mm LED are spaced perfectly to fit right in. For testing, don't solder the leads, just stick them in and bend them apart a little to make a temporary connection. Similarly, connect a single AA battery, or some other power source (maximum 3 volts) to the BATT connector. Once powered, you should see the LED blink red and green with whatever pattern is appropriate for the firmware loaded.

If you don't see the LED blink, use a voltmeter and check for 3.3 volts between pins 4 and 8 of the ATtiny, or on the top and bottom of the output filter cap (the larger and right-most of the two). If you see power, then the problem is likely with the microcontroller (to the right of the crystal). If not, then the problem is with the switching supply (to the left of the crystal).

For problems with the power supply, check for any components that are warm or hot to the touch, or for excessive current draw from the battery. In operation, the crazy clock should draw - on average - less than 350 µA, and probably closer to 250 µA. If it's drawing more than half a milliamp, something is likely shorting out. Also, check for any components that appear discolored or misshapen - a sure sign that the magic black smoke has escaped.

For problems with the microcontroller, check for pulses on pins 5 and 6. If you see them there, but not on the LED, then check the two series resistors and diodes for opens or shorts. If you don't see pulses coming from the microcontroller, check to make sure pin 1 (RESET) is high and use a high impedance oscilloscope probe to check for 4 MHz oscillations on pins 2 and 3. If you see them, then if you can, try to re-flash the firmware. If it won't accept new firmware but all of the other tests pass, then the controller itself is likely bad.

Theory of operation

The battery is connected to a boost converter that will increase the voltage to a regulated 3.3 volts from whatever voltage the battery is giving out all the way down to around half a volt or so. The boosted voltage is fed into an ATTiny85 with a 4.096 MHz crystal.  The firmware divides that by 8 for a system clock of 512 kHz. 512 kHz is the minimum frequency selectable that will still allow a normal AVR programmer to program the ATTiny (at an SPI clock of 400 kHz). Timer 0 is set up for a prescale of 1024, for a counting rate of 500 Hz and then is set to count from 0 to 49 and interrupt the CPU. These interrupts will therefore be at 10 Hz. The interrupts will be used to wake the CPU from sleep mode, which will minimize power consumption. The clock marks time by sleeping and then being woken up every 10th of a second.

Alternatively, the circuit can be built with a 4.000 MHz crystal instead of 4.096 MHz. In this case, the system clock will be 500 kHz and the divide by 1024 prescale value will result in a fractional count frequency. The firmware will need to toggle the CTC timer limit register between 48 and 47 to maintain a nominal 10 Hz interrupt rate.

The clock movement is based on a lavet style stepper motor. To make the second hand tick once, you must apply pulses across the coil, but each must be the opposite polarity of the last. This can be accomplished simply by pulsing one of two digital pins high (keeping the other grounded) and connecting both to the coil. To protect the controller from coil collapse voltages, a reverse biased diode to ground from each coil wire is present. Series resistors on each wire also reduce the voltage since the original working voltage of the system was the battery's 1.5 volts instead of 3.3.


Friday, August 15, 2014

A square peg in a round hole

The initial design of the crazy clock board uses a 4.096 MHz crystal because the prescaler combinations that are available are all powers of 2, and 1024 is the best one for the timer prescaler. But we want a 10 Hz basic interrupt source, and I just sort of gave up on trying to do that math.

But in figuring out the Martian clock's need to insert what amounts to a very whacky number of extra cycles, I remembered some work I did a long time ago in designing a custom programmable PLL circuit.

A lot of the programmable PLLs out there are designed with a special intermediate output to control a  prescaler that can do both divide-by-n and divide-by-n+1. So you can, for example, get a divide-by-5/divide-by-6 prescaler and your PLL will have a very low lock frequency, but still have a very minute tuning resolution because the divide ratio can effectively include fractions.

I used that to insert 99 extra counts for every 3600 by inserting an extra every 37 counts for 36 cycles, then every 36 counts for 63 cycles. 37*36+36*63 = 3600, and 36+63=99. And 24 hours becomes 24:39:36 and you're suddenly on Mars.

Well, could the same thing be done to let the basic mechanism work with a 2 MHz crystal? I can't find 2.048 MHz crystals, but a 2 MHz crystal might further reduce power consumption (going from 16 MHz to 4 MHz cut power consumption roughly in half).

Well, 2 MHz with a divide-by-4 prescaler is 500 kHz. That is, more or less, a match for the prototype's system clock. If we then set up timer 0 with a divide by 1024 prescaler, then what do we use for the CTC value?

500 kHz divided by 1024 is 488 + 9/32. Or put another way, to get 10 Hz, it's 48 and 53/64s. So if we set the CTC top to 49 for 53 cycles, and then 48 for 11, that solves the problem. The fact that some 10 Hz intervals will be 2.048 µS longer than others will be utterly insignificant.

All we have to do is replace sleep_mode() with calls to...

#define CLOCK_CYCLES (64)
// Don't forget to decrement the OCR0A value - it's 0 based and inclusive
#define CLOCK_BASIC_CYCLE (48 - 1)

void do_sleep() {
  static unsigned char cycle_pos = 0xff; // force a reset

  if (cycle_pos == CLOCK_NUM_LONG_CYCLES)
  if (cycle_pos++ >= CLOCK_CYCLES) {
    cycle_pos = 0;


Turns out Mouser has a 2 MHz crystal that conveniently fits in the footprint of the prototype board and even has a 10 ppm tolerance... but it's backordered until October. :(