Wednesday, January 20, 2016

LED low power limbo: light below 1uA

Anyone reading this blog has likely noticed how LED efficiency has significantly improved in the last decade.  If you follow the old rule-of-thumb and use a 330-Ohm series resistor to power a modern LED from a 5V supply, looking directly at the LED will leave a dot floating in your vision for a few minutes like a camera flash.  Series resistors for 0603 SMD LEDs like those on the Baite Pro Mini board are often around 1K-Ohm, and even then I find them too bright.  Even when powered through a MCUs ~40K-Ohm pull-up resistor, I find LEDs clearly visible.  This got me wondering, how low can you go?

I started with a cheap (<$2 for a bag of 100) 5mm blue LED with a 470K resistor, powered from a 3.3V supply.  The room was lit with 2 800 lumen CFL bulbs, and the LED was still clearly visible.  The voltage across the resistor (measured with a meter that has 10M input impedance) was 856mV, so solving for I in V=IR means that the current was only 1.8uA.  The next step was to try 2 470K resistors, and although it was dim, it was still clearly visible, especially when looking directly into the LED.  In the photo above the LED looks brighter than it does with the naked eye due to the light sensitivity of the camera being different than the human eye.

The largest resistors I have in my collection are 1M-Ohm, and I really wanted to try at least 4.7M-Ohm.  Without an obvious solution, I put my breadboard away in a drawer for a few days.  My inspiration came when I thought of my TL431A voltage references.  With a 270Ohm resistor and a TL431 I made a simple low-current 2.5V supply.  With the 2.5V supply and a 470K series resistor, the LED was still visible!  The current through the LED was about 0.2uA, and the voltage drop across the LED, which normally is around 3V with 20mA of current, was slightly above 2.3V.  I found that the LED was brighter when I didn't look directly at it, which is to be expected with dim objects since the most light sensitive cells in our retina (the rods) are located outside the center of our vision.  After adding the 2nd 470K resistor back into the circuit, with just 144nA of current, the LED was still faintly perceptible.

Rather than digging out the 1M resistors, I grabbed a 1n4148 diode and connected it in place of one of the 470K resistors.  If you didn't read my diodes, diodes everywhere post, you might think a 1n4148 would drop about 0.6V from the supply, leaving too little to light the LED.  But with all diodes, the lower the current, the lower the voltage drop.  With the 1n4148 and a single 470K resistor, the blue LED was no long obviously visible (sometimes I thought I noticed some blue out of the corner of my eye), and the voltage drop across the 1n4148 was just 157mV.  The current through the LED now 103nA.  With my camera pointed directly at the LED and the room lights still on, I could still clearly see blue light.  To be sure I cycled the power on the circuit a few times, and the blue light came on and off as expected.

Since even lithium coin cell batteries that you might use for a low-power project have an internall leakage current in the hundreds of nano-amperes, I had reached the end of the practical application of the experiment.  But like any good hacker (hat tip to Jamie and Adam), I wanted to see how far I could take the experiment.  A human is able to detect when a few dozen photons enter their dark-adjusted eye.  The next step was pretty simple; turn off the lights.

Once I turned off the lights, the blue LED was again visible.  My next step was adding the 1n4148 back into the circuit, along with the 2 470K resistors(after turning the room lights back on).  At this point the current was only 17nA, and I was questioning whether I would be able to see anything, even after my eyes adjusted to the dark.  I turned out the lights and went to bed.

While in bed I wondered how much light, quantitatively, was being emitted by the LED.  The light is the result of electromagnetic waves emitted by atoms in the LED gets stimulated by an electron.  Super-high efficiency LEDs can supposedly emit 1 quantum of light (i.e. a photon) per 3 electrons.  My cheap LEDs are nowhere near as efficient, perhaps emitting 1 quantum of light for every 300 electrons.  Dust off the old physics texts, and you can figure out that 100nA of current is about 600 billion electrons per second, and 17nA is a bit more than 100 billion electrons per second.  The chance of seeing light at 17nA was seeming more likely.

After about 10 minutes in bed letting my eyes adjust to the dark, I got up to look at the test circuit.  With only the faint green glow of the ethernet link lights from my router a couple meters away, I stared at the blue LED.  I thought I could make out a fuzzy ball of light when I got very close (~10cm) away from the LED.  I cycled the power on the circuit a couple times, and sure enough the light came and went.

Getting back to the practical applications of this experiment, think of a wireless sensor running on a CR2032 coin cell.  Using the internal 35K Ohm pull-up on an AVR MCU to power a blue indicator LED will use 10-15uA of current while still making the LED easily visible.  Blinking the led for 100ms out of every 5s will consume an average of just 300nA, while making a useful heartbeat indicator.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Lessons in buying Bitcoin

While bitcoin is far from mainstream, with it making headlines like Mark Zuckerberg's nemesis twins Tyler and Cameron launching Gemini, I figured I'd learn how to use bitcoin.  Aside from nerds using it to tip on reddit and github, bitcoin doesn't have much practical use.  Personally my interest is primarily educational, so if any bitcoin related business opportunities arise in the future, I may be able to capitalize on them.

With their logo at the start of this post, you can probably guess that I recommend coinbase for Canadians and Americans looking to buy small amounts of bitcoin (under US$500 worth of bitcoin).  This recommendation comes after I've looked at the offerings from several bitcoin exchanges including bitstamp, bitfinex, Kraken,, and Canadian exchange QuadrigaCX.  I registered for an account at bitstamp and coinbase, and traded bitcoin on the latter.

Bitstamp supports funding (sending money to bitstamp so you can buy bitcoin) from Canadian bank accounts.  Any funds are converted to USD, but finding out the exchange rate takes some work.  I emailed bitstamp on Christmas eve asking for their foreign exchange fees, and received a reply back on the 28th:
to view our exchange rates, please see the following link and click on the "Corporate exchange rates" for the correct rates: .Please note that all currencies are converted to USD free of charge by our bank.
I checked the exchange rates, and found that their bank adds about 0.6% to the spot rate for CAD/USD.  On top of that you'd have to add their trading fee of 0.1% for a limit order or 0.2% for a market order.  Adding that to their $1 minimum e-check fee means that the total fees to buy $100 in bitcoin would be $1.70.  That's reasonable compared to most other exchanges, but you'll have to pass their account verification first.  Despite providing a 300dpi high-quality jpeg scan of my driver's license, my account verification request was denied with the message, "the quality of the image/scan cannot be accepted according to UK AML standards."  In other words, no bitstamp for me!

For coinbase I couldn't completely figure out their fees until I actually set up an account.  Some of their support pages refer to 0% maker and 0.25% taker fees on their exchange.  Other support pages will refer to a 1% fee for buying bitcoin.  In the end I figured out both are correct, since there are two ways to buy and sell bitcoin.

With coinbase, unlike bitstamp, you can fund your account without ID verification.  You will need a cell phone with a US or Canadian number for a basic residency check.  Once your account is setup and you choose to deposit funds to your "CAD wallet", you are presented with the following options:

When I chose "Deposit with Interac", I wasn't able to proceed and was given an error message that I need to verify my account.  A good account interface design wouldn't have presented the option, and instead would have it greyed out with a note that the option is available after ID verification.  To use the bank account, you need to provide your bank, transit, and account number.  After a day or two you'll see a small deposit to your account (for me it was under 50c).  You need to log into your online banking to see the amount of the deposit, and then enter the exact amount in your coinbase account to link with your bank account.  Once that is done, you can take funds from your bank account, and after a few days the funds will become available for buying bitcoin.

Being a bit impatient, I decided to provide ID verification so I could use Interac Online in order to get funds instantly into my account.  A few minutes after uploading same jpeg file of my license that bitstamp refused to accept, I got an email stating my identity has been verified.  In addition to making the Interac Online available, verifying my account increased my limits from $500/day to $3000/day (not that the $500 limit was a problem for me).  However I still couldn't use Interac Online because, "Interac online is not available for visa debit card holders."  If you have a relatively new bank card (issued in the last couple years) with the Visa debit logo in the corner, you're out of luck.

My wife's account, however, doesn't have the Visa debit logo.  After noticing this, and reading about the referral program that gives $10 in BTC for the new account and for my account, I set up another account for my wife.  Now that I knew how coinbase worked, the process was a lot quicker.  I helped he set up the account, and had her account verified with a copy of her license.  Then I used Interac Online to withdraw C$149 from her account, leaving C$148 in her CAD wallet after the $1 fee was deducted.  I then chose to buy bitcoin, entered $148, which left $146.52 after the 1% fee, and completed the transaction at the quoted exchange rate (about C$620/BTC).  A few minutes later I got an email about my invitation bonus, and at the same time an additional US$10 worth of BTC showed up in my wife's account.

So what about those 0% maker and 0.25% taker fees?  For that you need to use the coinbase exchange, which you can do by clicking on "exchange" from your account, and then click on log in with coinbase.  The interface is similar to a discount stock broker, with a list of bid and ask prices along with a calculation of the current spread.  With a Canadian account you can only trade CAD/BTC, but you can view the USD/BTC order book.  The spreads on the USD/BTC exchange are usually only 1-2c, while spreads of $1-$2 are common for CAD/BTC.   Because of that I was able to get better prices than I could if I was trading USD/BTC.  I tried a couple small (<0.1BTC) limit sell orders, with a price a few cents below the lowest listed sell order price.  The first one filled in about 10 minutes, and the second filled in less than a minute.  Both, as expected, had no fees as "maker" orders.

As long as the invitation program continues, the net fees to get C$160 in bitcoin is actually negative.  After paying $2.50 in fees to buy $146 in bitcoin, you'll get US$10(C$14) in bitcoin as a bonus.  Probably not worth the trouble for most people, but certainly worth it for the nerds and geeks that want to give out bitcoin tips.

Monday, January 11, 2016

ESP8266 reset and booting

When I got my first esp-01 module, I found there was a lot of mis-information about how to reset and flash the modules.  For the esp-01, pulling GPIO0 low while pulsing reset low is the easy and common way to get it to enter the bootloader for flashing.  When using modules like the ESP-12 that have most of the available pins broken out, things get a little more complicated.

I noticed the issue when I tried wiring a module for deep sleep mode by connecting GPIO16 to RST.  In deep sleep mode only the RTC is running, and instead of an internal software wake-up timer like some other MCUs, the esp8266 has to be woken up by a pulse on RST generated by the RTC on GPIO16.  With the GPIO16 to RST connection, I had difficulty resetting the module with a 270 Ohm resistor to ground.  The reason is that GPIO16 is not a pull-up, it is in output high mode.  The solution is to reboot the module using the EN pin (also labeled CH_PD on some modules) instead of RST.  The difference between RST and EN is that bringing EN low powers down the whole chip including the RTC.

I did some additional testing of the chip boot-up by holding RST low and EN high.  While in reset, the chip keeps GPIO0, GPIO2, and GPIO15 high with an internal 33K pull-up to Vcc.  If reset is then released, the chip will boot in SDIO mode, which is really only good for hooking it to a raspberry pi.  ESP-01 modules have GPIO15 connected to ground, but for modules like the ESP-12 it is necessary to pull GPIO15 low during boot.

After booting up, I checked the default state of most of the pins.  TX0 is high, which is the UART idle state, while RX0 has a weak pull-up so that it is not floating.  GPIO0 has a weak pull-up, GPIO2 is high, GPIO4 is low, GPIO5 is high, and GPIO15 stays low, even with a pull-down resistor.

With ESP-01 modules, I was using my zero-wire auto-reset circuit with DTR connected to GPIO0 in order to flash the modules.  For projects that were using GPIO0, this meant having to disconnect the DTR line after flashing.  I'm now working on a circuit that doesn't require DTR, and will hold GPIO0 and GPIO15 low for a short while after the module is rebooted by toggling EN.

I haven't found any information that indicates how long GPIO0 and GPIO15 need to be held low in order to enter the bootloader, so I'll need to experiment with the resistor and capacitor values.  Using a 15K resistor and 0.1uF capacitor keep GPIO0 and GPIO15 low for about 1ms after startup.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A 3.6V LiFePO4 charger for under 50c

I like LiFePO4 batteries.  They have a rather flat discharge at around 3.2V, which is ideal for powering 3.3V devices without a regulator.  You can also use them in devices that take 2 standard AA cells by using a blank shunt in the 2nd battery slot since 2 fresh alkaline cells in series provide 3.2-3.3V.  And since they are readily available in the 14x50mm AA size, you can use cheap AA holders for them in electronics projects.

When it comes to chargers, things can be a bit problematic.  LiFePO4 batteries should be charged to 3.6V, rather than 4.2V like regular lithium-ion batteries.  A good charger costs $10-$15, but charging at a high current will reduce the number of recharge cycles.  The Soshine batteries I bought indicate on the label a standard charging current of 300mA to 3.6V.  Rather than search for a charger to fit the bill, I decided to make one.

From my experiments with TL431 regulators, I remembered the regulator circuit above.  My idea was to take a 5V USB supply, and regulate it to 3.6V for charging the LiFePO4 cells.  For the NPN transistor, I wanted to use something more powerful than the usual 2N3904 which has a collector current rating of 200mA.  I found some old PN2222a transistors which are rated for 600mA, more than enough for the 300mA I needed.  Another thing to keep in mind when choosing a transistor is power dissipation.  TO92 packages are good for about 500mW before they get hot enough to burn flesh.  With the voltage drop across the transistor around 1.45V (5.05V - 3.6V), up to 350mA should be fine with a TO92 transistor.

Having chosen the transistor, I needed to figure out R1 and R2 such that I would get the desired 3.6V at Vout.  With Vref = 2.5, R1/R2 = 0.44, I needed to find 2 resistors close to that ratio.  After sorting through my resistor collection, I found some 1.2K and 2.7K resistors, which gives a ratio of 0.444.  The capacitor between the reference and cathode of the tl431 can be omitted, so the only other component I needed to figure out was unlabeled resistor between the transistor collector and base.  The amount of base current required will depend on the gain of the transistor.  With 300mA of collector current  the gain could be anywhere from 15 to 50.  I had some 68Ohm resistors handy which I decided to try.  Vbe of the transistor is around 0.7V, so with V+ at 5.05 and Vout at 3.6, using a 68Ohm resistor would give me a base current of 11mA.  I tested it with a partially discharged battery, and measured 290-300mA!  Things weren't quite perfect though, as after 10 minutes the voltage passed 3.6, and kept rising toward 4V.  I disconnected the power, and after some debugging I realized I had R1 and R2 mixed up.  I discovered this by measuring the reference voltage, and finding it was around 1.3V when Vout was 4.2.  After swapping the resistors, with no battery connected I was getting 3.61 for Vout and 2.5V on the reference - just what I wanted.

One other word of warning - be careful using the cheap little 170-hole breadboards for projects with more than 20-30mA of power.  I had started with one of them until I remembered the problematic high-resistance contacts on them.

Before getting out the soldering iron and making the circuit permanent, I wanted a way to tell when charging was complete.  After toying with a couple ideas, my final solution is a 2V green LED in series with the TL431 cathode.  When Vout reaches 3.6, the tl431 shunts almost all of the base current (a small base current is still required due to the ~1mA of leakage through R1 + R2).  When I tested it out, I found an unexpected benefit of the LED glowing dimly as charging starts, and then turning bright when charging completes.  This can be explained by looking at the cathode current graph from the datasheet:

With a fully-discharged battery, Vout will start at around 3V, and Vref will be about 2.1V.  The cathode current will be about 250uA, and since the LED is in series with the cathode, that will be the LED current as well.  This is enough to make a dim but visible glow.  When Vout reaches 3.6V, the tl431 will shunt most of the 11mA from the transistor base, making the LED glow brightly.

The last thing I tried while I had everything in the breadboard was substituting at 2N3904 for the PN2222a.  Suprisingly, I was able to get 200mA of charging current.  So if all you have are 3904s, you can still get a reasonable amount of current.  You could probably even use 2 3904s in parallel for close to 400mA of current.

For the permanent version of the circuit I used a small 7x4 piece of stripboard.  By planning out the layout on paper first, I was able to use 7 strips without any breaks.  I got a little too rushed doing the assembly and put the tl431 in the wrong way around (cathode and reference swapped).  After fixing it, I tested for continuity on all my solder connections. One needed to be re-worked, and with a bit of flux, a dab more solder, everything was good.  After some hot glue to attach the battery holder, I plugged it into a USB power port, and it worked perfectly.

Here's my final BOM:
AA battery holder: 15c
1/12th of a stripboard: 6c
USB male connector: 22c ( or 10c from other sources)
Old pn2222a: 5c (replacement cost; paid $3 for a package of 15 at RadioShack almost 30 yrs ago)
TL431A: 1.5c
resistors: 3c
3mm green led: 1c

Satisfaction of building your own battery charger: priceless :-)

2015/01/05 update

I tried doing the stripboard layout in fritzing, but it doesn't have a tl431, and I couldn't get a good view given the perspective it uses.  Instead I tried drawing my layout plan in a more readable form: