Minimalist Low Power Supercapacitor Sensor Node

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Minimalist Low Power Supercapacitor Sensor Node

One of the biggest challenges for wireless sensor networks is that of power. Solar panels usually produce less power than you hoped, especially small ones, and designing super low power circuits is tricky. [Strange.rand] has dropped into the low-power rabbit hole, and is designing a low-cost wireless sensor node that runs on solar power and a supercapacitor.

The main components of the sensor node is an ATMega 328P microcontroller running at 4Mhz, RFM69 radio transceiver, I2C temperature/humidity sensor, 1F supercapacitor, and a small solar panel. The radio, MCU, and sensor all run on 1.5-3.6V, but the supercap and solar panel combination can go up to 5.5V. To regulate the power to lower voltage components a low-drop voltage regulator might seem like the simplest solution, but [strange.rand] found that the 3.3V regulator was consuming an additional 20uA or more when the voltage dropped below 3.3V. Instead, he opted to eliminate the LDO, and limit the charging voltage of the capacitor to 3.6V with a comparator-based overvoltage protection circuit. Using this configuration, the circuit was able to run for 42 hours on a single charge, transmitting data once per minute while above 2.7V, and once every three minutes below that.

Another challenge was undervoltage protection. [strange.rand] discovered that the ATmega consumes an undocumented 3-5 mA when it goes into brown-out below 1.8V. The small solar panel only produces 1 mA, so the MCU would prevent the supercapacitor from charging again. He solved this with another comparator circuit to cut power to the other components.

We see challenges like these a lot with environmental sensors and weather stations with smaller solar panels. For communication, low power consumption of a sub-Ghz radio is probably your best bet, but if you want to use WiFi, you can get the power usage down with a few tricks.