Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Easy Electrons – Need more power

In Hardware on Jan 2, 2011 at 00:01

Welcome to another installment of the Easy Electrons series.

There have been a few posts about What is “power”?, but that was about the electrical concepts of power and energy, and how it relates to voltage and current.

In this post, I’d like to go into a different topic: how to control more powerful electrical devices. As you’ve seen in the LED discharge circuit post, the I/O pins of an ATmega can be used as weak power supply, sort of. This is because an output pin set to “1” can be used as a 3.3V (5V on Arduino) power source, as long as you don’t draw more than a few milliamperes of current.

Here are the specifications of what a single pin can do, taken from the ATmega datasheet:

Source Datasheet

A few milliamps is not much. Barely enough to light a LED, and far too little to drive even the simplest electric motor. Let alone a light, a heater, or any AC mains appliance.

The first thing to note, is that there are a lot of different ways to control power – and each approach has fairly rigid limitations. You could use a power transistor to drive a bright 12V halogen lamp, but that same transistor would fail (spectacularly and dangerously so) if you tried to use it to control even the smallest AC mains lightbulb. Controlling power is a tricky business. As voltages and currents increase, so do the risks and potential effects of failure.

Let’s start simple, with an LED strip. These strips often need 12V to light up, and use about 300..900 mA per meter. There are several ways to control an LED strip of up to a few meters – using a relay, transistor, or MOSFET, respectively:

Screen Shot 2010 12 29 at 10.20.57

The relay is is the oldest type of power switch, and easiest to understand: an electromagnet closes a switch while powered up. It has been around for centuries. And although I included it as option, in practice even the smallest relays draw more current than what an ATmega I/O pin can supply (apart from very low power reed switches).

The transistor was invented only a few decades ago, and is at the heart of every electronic circuit these days. It’s usually depicted as follows in schematic diagrams (image from Wikipedia):

200px Transistor 2.svg

There’s a lot more to say about this fascinating invention. For now, let me just say that you can feed it a small current and it’ll control a much larger current (and voltage) on another pin.

And then there’s the MOSFET, which is even more recent than the standard bipolar-junction transistor. MOSFETs are pretty incredible: feed it a few microamps, and it can switch a huge amount of current (dozens of amps!). Perfect for direct hook-up to a microcontroller.

So how do we control an LED strip?

Easy – with a MOSFET, for example:

Screen Shot 2010 12 29 at 10.33.02

Note that the LED needs 12V at a fairly high current, whereas something like a JeeNode tolerates 12V – and needs only a few milliamps. In this case, we can get away with connecting both power supply inputs to the same 12V. The built-in voltage regulator will immediately reduce that 12V input to the 3.3V used in the rest of the circuit. So the voltage on the MOSFET “gate” will only be 0V or 3.3V – fortunately, that’s enough for many common MOSFETs these days.

It’s important to note that all these voltages and currents are fairly independent. The following would work just as well, using two separate power supplies:

Screen Shot 2010 12 29 at 10.33.14

I’ve drawn some extra arrows to indicate how the different current paths work. The crucial point is that current always needs to go through a closed loop. If the current “came from” the power supply on the left, then it will also always “return” to that same left-side supply. Think of it as “tagged electricity” if you like: what goes out of a battery on one en must come back on the other end of that same battery. It doesn’t really matter whether you think of electricity as “flowing” from + to –, or electrons flowing from – to +.

Note the connection between “–” on the left and “–” on the right. Without it nothing will work. The reason for this, is that voltages are always relative to some other part of the circuit. You can’t have a voltage (or a current, for that matter) over a single wire. You always need a return path. So in the case of the MOSFET, to drive it and put a voltage on it, you need to connect two wires – even if the current is small, as in this case. That’s why “–” is usually called ground, i.e. the reference against which we measure everything else.

Does this matter? You bet. If the power circuit uses a lot of current, then all its conductors must be able to carry that current: it needs thick wires! – but at the same time, the rest of the circuit can still get by with thin copper traces, as usual on boards like the JeeNode. This means that the ground connections (“–”) may need to be thick on one side, but not on the other – even though all ground connections have to be electrically tied together!

Current flow and proper design of all the wiring and connections is essential in power circuits. It’s a lot more involved than with purely digital circuits, or circuits which carry just milliamps.

How about controlling a lightbulb connected to 220V (or 110V)?

One way is with a relay (designed for such high voltages). But a relay can’t be driven directly from an output pin – so we add a transistor in between:

Screen Shot 2010 12 29 at 10.42.01

The extra resistor and diode are required (for reasons I won’t go into right now).

Note that there is no connection between this circuit and the switch shown at the top which is used to control the lightbulb. That relay does something which is crucial in the case of AC mains: it adds an isolation barrier between the low-voltage (safe!) side of the circuit and the AC mains (potentially lethal!) side of the circuit.

The second common way to control such a lightbulb is a Solid state relay, which uses a built-in opto-isolator to provide the isolation barrier. The advantage of an SSR is that it has no moving parts – hence no mechanical wear.

I’ve only touched briefly on how you can hook up stuff which needs more power than a feeble ATmega output pin can provide. Follow the links above if you want to find out more.

And marvel at the amount of knowledge and understanding Wikipedia brings us, freely available to anyone with an internet connection, anywhere in the world!

  1. I am an M.D., urologist, so this is not my field of expertize… Well, if I learned well at physics at school 15 years ago, the current flows from – to +. But never the less, on daily bases this does not matter…

  2. electrons flows from – to + but by convention (because scientists discovered electrons flows after they decided arbitrarily the current flow) we say that current goes form + to -. :-)

  3. Hehe, I wondered when someone would mention that. I think it’s best we stick to the conventional current flow than electron flow :-)

    Great timing on this post too JC, perfect for one of the threads in the forums.

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