How long do solar cells live? (part 3)

Finally, after much tinkering, I’ve got a system that’s worth committing to a PCB. Here is a shot of the prototype system being tested out…

A prototype breadboard lifetester being tested. Two solar cells are being held at MPP at the same time under the work-lamp. The arduino boards are used for PC interfacing and programming.

Above is a picture that I took as I was working on the system. At this point, two solar cells (under the work lamp) are illuminated and being driven at maximum power point (MPP) at the same time. As described previously, I used a current sensing circuit based on an inverting amplifier which is assembled on the long breadboard in the middle along with the DACs and ADCs needed to drive the circuit and collect data. On the neighbouring breadboard is a programmed ATMega328 chip which drives this process and is interfaced by I2C as a slave to another master ATMega328 on an Arduino UNO board. I needed another Arduino UNO board for programming the ATMega and for USB-Serial communication debugging when needed. There’s a neat article on this on the Arduino site here. Have a look at this schematic below for more detail of what I did exactly…

Schematic showing the layout of microcontroller and Arduino boards used in the picture above. Note that the analog circuit and SPI devices aren’t shown.

Unfortunately, the analog circuit that I was using was not quite doing the job. I noticed that although the output voltage from the DAC was as expected from the binary code that I was feeding into it, at the other end of the buffer amplifier (at the DUT terminal) it wasn’t. In particular, at Vin = 0V (short-circuit), the applied bias wasn’t 0V. It turns out that the buffer amplifier needs to work as a current sink in this case – current actually flows from ground to the buffer. To overcome this, in addition to +5V and 0V,  I also needed to supply -5V to the op-amp. To make sure that the output from the amplifier to the ADC, Vout, never went below 0V I used a precision rectifier circuit – it acts like an ideal diode; there’s no voltage drop at the output which is commonly associated with a regular diode. The simplified schematic is below and a full Fritzing file here.

Analog current sensing circuit used to drive the solar cells under test (DUT). The circuit is based on a precision rectifier/inverting amplifier. The range can be altered by changing Rsense.

Here’s what it does again in brief:

  1. Under illumination, current flows from ground to the buffer amplifier.
  2. Current flowing from ground to the buffer amplifier leads to a small (0 > Vx > -10mV) negative voltage across the sense resistor.
  3. This voltage is fed into an inverting op-amp. It is inverted and amplified 350 times. A precision rectifier arrangement ensures that the output can never go below 0V. Gain and offset can be tuned by means of trimmer resistors.
  4. The output is connected to an ADC for data logging and MPP tracking.

Below is some of the data that came out of this system…

Data measured from the prototype breadboard lifetime tester: live MPPT vs time (top panel) and the solar cell IV characteristic measured at the end of the test (bottom panel). Note that the MPP (DACx = 760) agrees well with the DAC setting during tracking.

The live MPPT data shows some fluctuation in voltage. Because of the hill climbing, perturb and observe algorithm used, the voltage is constantly being probed. You can also see a sharp step in the MPP data where I adjusted light intensity which is indicated by the increase in ADCx (current). Shortly afterwards (measurements are taken roughly every second), this is followed by DACx (applied voltage) as the MPPT system catches up which is expected. As a double check, I reset the lifetime tester to run another IV characteristic without changing the light intensity. This registered an MPP at DACx = 760 (0.38V) which was consistent with the MPP tracking data.

Having convinced myself that this system was working nicely, I decided it was time to design a PCB. More on that to come.

New job!

Sorry it’s been so long! After finishing my contract at Sheffield University, I was out of work for a couple of months and desperate to get a job sorted. To this end, I’ve been working hard to improve my knowledge of C and it seems to have worked! I was offered a job as a graduate embedded software engineer at Cambridge Medical Robotics three weeks ago. So far so good – They’re a really friendly bunch of talented people and I’m learning a lot!

A big thanks to my mate Jan for putting me forward for the job and inspiring me to go for it and thanks to Al Kelley and Ira Pohl for their book on C. If you’re thinking about a move into software, then my advice would be to get stuck in. My experience was really positive at all the interviews I attended and hard work is rewarded. Put in the time, really learn your stuff and it will happen.