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The Zener Diode

As a reference, let's remember how a normal diode (no zener) works. On chapter 1, we
learnt that a normal diode allows current passing in one sense (polarized forward) and
does not in the opposite (reverse polarization).

Well, a zener diode do the same thing on forward

polarization. And on reverse polarization, when
the voltage grows, the current increases very
little. But when we reach a reverse voltage Vz,
which is the main parameter of each zener diode,
the current abruptly starts to raise.
As you can see in the characteristic curve, if we
continue increasing the reverse voltage above Vz,
the current grows dramatically, with a very low
voltage variation.
It works as a relief valve.

On the market we can find zener diodes from Vz=3.3 Volt up to more than 100 Volt.
Another important parameter of the zener diodes is their admisible power. Usually you
can buy it at the store only with these two parameters, something like: " I need a 7.5 Volt
x 1Watt zener diode please".

How to use a Zener Diode

A zener diode is used on reverse polarization, as a voltage limiter or basic regulator. Let's
suppose that we have an input voltage of 12 Volt, and we want to limit the output voltage
to 7.5 Volt. Then we choose a 1N4737 7.5V zener diode. On the datasheet below, we can
see that IZT= 34mA, which is the minimum current needed for reaching Vz, and IZM=121
mA is the maximum admisible current.
So, a good working point is IZ=80 mA, near the middle. That can be accomplished by
mean of the next circuit:

RL is a current limiting resistor, needed for not to apply 12V directly to the zener diode.
First of all, if there is no load connected at the output, the difference of potential between
RL terminals is:

We need 80 mA, so, using Ohm's law (chapter one), we can calculate the resistor's
needed value.
That's ok, but, what happens if a load is connected at the output, which takes a current of,
for example, 20 mA? From the diagram we can derive that:

The voltage at the input remains on 12V, and zener voltage is always approximately
7.5V, then the current across the resistor is the same than before. It's only that now this
total current is distributed, 20mA to the output and 60mA remain on the zener diode. This
is valid, provided that the current Iz does not fall bellow IZT=34mA, keeping the zener
diode near to Vz=7.5Volt. That's mean that the maximum available current for a load is:

If we try to take an output current higher than 46mA, the Iz will be lower than 34mA, and
the voltage on the zener will be less than the planned 7.5 volt.

Used this way, the zener diode works as a voltage regulator or reference, with 3 to 5
percent of variations due to variations on input voltage, output load and temperature. This
performance can be improved, but usually we use a zener diode as a reference or
regulator only on low current simple applications where those errors are fully admissible.
Zener diodes are also used for protection against voltage peaks.



Every day the sun showers Earth with several thousand times as much energy as we use.
Even the small amount that strikes our roof is many times as much as all the energy that
comes in through electric wires. With the sun straight overhead, a single acre of land
receives some four thousand horsepower, about equivalent to a large railroad locomotive.
Even if we are able to convert small part of this solar energy to do some useful work, we
can make the environment non-polluting and get ourselves free from battery operation.
We can use this solar energy for many different purposes such as water heating, building
solar powered vehicles or robots, to provide electricity to rural areas, agriculture
purposes, cooking etc. and the list goes on…….The best part being solar energy is freely
available source with longer lifetime. As all our energy sources are going to get emptied
sooner or later, it is a good step going towards the solar source of energy for future.

We are going to concentrate on how to use this solar energy for our purpose of building a
solar powered robot. To start off with let’s discuss some typical solar terms:
Solar Power: It refers more specifically to the conversion of sunlight into electricity via
photovoltaic effect.

Solar Cell: Solar cells form the heart of solar powered bots, so before Learning about
solar cells let us first revise about the photovoltaic or photoelectric effect. Photovoltaic,
as the word implies (photo = light, voltaic =electricity), convert sunlight directly into
electricity. Sunlight is composed of photons, or “packets” of energy. These photons
contain various amounts of energy corresponding to the different wavelengths of light.
When photons strike a Photovoltaic cell (PV cells) or a Solar cell they may be reflected
or absorbed, or they may pass right through. Photovoltaic cells are made of
semiconductors such as silicon, which is currently the most commonly used. Basically,
when photons strike the cell, a certain portion of it is absorbed within the semiconductor
material. When a photon is absorbed, the energy of the photon is transferred to an
electron in an atom of the cell. This energy knocks electrons loose, allowing them to flow
freely. These freely flowing electrons constitute a current, and by placing metal contacts
on the top and bottom of the PV cell, we can draw off the current for external use.

What to look out for before buying any solar cells?

<!--[if !supportLists]-->1. <!--[endif]-->Size : The solar cell size will depend few factors
such as the power requirements of your circuit , the performance level of your solar cell,
limitations put on solar cell area that can be used in a competition and most importantly
choose a solar cell that meets your bots design limitations. Heavier cells put more of load
on your bots, which usually means more load on your motors, which means more power

<!--[if !supportLists]-->2. <!--[endif]-->Solar cell Voltage (Voc): This is maximum open

circuit voltage measured at zero output current. Solar cells are available in a number of
output voltages the most common being 0.5 V and most of the BEAM bots require
minimum of 2.5 to 3 volts for their operation. So, you need to connect a number of them
in series in order to provide a minimum useful voltage. The voltage of the cell does not
depend on its size, and remains fairly constant with changing light intensity.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->3. <!--[endif]-->Solar cell Current (Isc): This is the short circuit
current measured at zero output voltage. According to your circuits load current
requirements choose a solar cell with current rating of approx 2-3 times your load
current. If you are unable to find solar cells meeting your load current requirements then
you always have an option of putting your individual solar cell modules in parallel for
meeting your requirements. Unlike voltage, the current in the solar cell is almost directly
proportional to light intensity and size. So, depending under what kind of light source you
are working and amount of cell region being exposed to light, the available current will

<!--[if !supportLists]-->4. <!--[endif]-->Availability & Cost: After working on above

requirements, you got to check availability of a solar cell meeting your requirements. If
they are not available you got to refine your search again. The most common material
used in solar cells is single crystal silicon which have an energy conversion efficiency is
limited to 18 percent and that too coming at a higher price. There are also Polycrystalline
(”many crystals”) solar cells available which have their energy conversion efficiency
limited to 13 percent and that too at a lower price than former. One more is amorphous
silicon solar cells having energy conversion efficiency of 10 percent but coming at a
cheap price. Besides the various forms of silicon, a number of other materials can also be
used to make solar cells such as gallium arsenide, cadmium telluride to name a few. So
it’s up to you to choose which solar cell you are going to buy: higher performance at
expensive price or decent performance at cheap price.

You can check out this link for finding out the solar cell performance:

Solar Panel:

An individual solar cell is not able to provide enough power that is needed for practical
applications, so these solar cells are linked together to form an array of solar cells (thus
called solar panels) to convert solar energy into a usable amount of electricity for the
application. The interconnected solar cells need to be protected from moisture, any
mechanical damage & cell heating. They are mostly available in glass plate sandwich
module structures. The purpose of the structure is to provide a rigid package to avoid
mechanical damage during manufacture, transport, installation & use, protect the inter-
cell connections from the environment and provide good backing behind the module to
minimize cell heating.The factors determining the performance of a solar panel are –
efficiency of solar cells, peak power output of solar, varying light conditions, cell
temperature and load (say motor, led etc.).

So now the next step is how to use solar panel for building a robot. The whole idea
behind building any robot is giving it a brain which is the main controlling unit. For our
case that brain is the solar engine which is as discussed below:

Solar Engine: Generally when you build any kind of solar powered bot, the central unit
behind it is a solar engine. The working of solar engine can be understood by this analogy
of water engine. Suppose we have a source of water which we require to do some useful
work. Our water source is not enough in quantity (Say water droplets) to do some useful
work but is coming at a constant rate. So we will have to devise a method to utilize this
little but yet constant flow of water. The first thing we will do is build a collection device
such as a tank which will keep storing the water droplets. The water in the tank will be
under constant check, whether it has reached some set threshold mark. The purpose of the
threshold is to activate the emptying of the tank. Once the trigger signal is seen the water
in the tank is used to do the useful work, until the water in tank gets emptied out. After
this is done the tank starts to fill up and the same process repeats.

So now you should be able to relate this analogy with our solar engine, where water
droplets being our solar source, tank being a capacitor and the trigger signal being either
a voltage triggered or time triggered circuit. So now depending on the tank size, source
strength, trigger point and work to be done, the solar engine design will vary from user to

Now, we can define the solar engine as a circuit which receives solar energy and stores
that energy until some useable amount is stored, which is then released in a burst to do
some useful work like driving motors or other loads. Advantages of solar engine are:

1. The solar cell size can be minimized (as by manipulating the tank size & trigger point
we can do the same useful work with even larger solar cell taking less time or smaller
solar cell taking more time).

2. The solar bot can work in low intensity levels (as higher intensity will fill up the tank
quickly and smaller intensity will take more time to fill up, so the work can be done from
either of the tanks).

3. More economical (as solar cell size reduced which furthers cuts the cost and weight).

4. The circuitry is easily available and not too expensive.

Now after having discussed about solar engines lets look at the parts required to build it.
The capacitor which is the charge storage device can be of 2200microfarad to 1 farad,
depending upon your design. A larger storage capacitor will take more time to charge but
will be on for more time to get discharged, whereas smaller storage capacitor will take
less time to charge but will be on for less time. It’s like larger capacitor (say 1 farad) will
work in less frequent- longer bursts and smaller capacitor (say 3300microfarad) will work
in more frequent-shorter bursts.

The next is the trigger circuit. Generally it is similar to a relaxation oscillator, just read
this link: most widely used trigger
circuit is voltage controlled trigger. In voltage controlled solar engines the solar cell
charges the capacitor until a predetermined voltage is reached, where the trigger circuit
dumps the stored electrical power from the main capacitor through the main load. They
are easy to build, and provide a fairly high level of efficiency. Now, I will just give you a
brief idea about different voltage controlled trigger circuits. The most popular ones which
are successfully being implemented on beam bots are:

Zener-based: This design uses a Zener diode as means of determining the trigger
voltage. The reverse bias operating voltage of the Zener is used as means of triggering
point in the circuit. You can also use LED’s or diodes in series to accomplish the same
trigger voltage.
The voltage across the capacitor rises slowly as it is charging from the output of a solar
cell. This voltage also appears across the Zener in series with the PNP base emitter
junction. The resistor is connected in series with the motor to the capacitor and both are
in parallel with the base of the PNP. The base and the emitter of the PNP are positive
(emitter positive directly through the positive terminal of the capacitor and base through
the resistor and the motor). Since both base and emitter are positive the PNP transistor
doesn’t work (current doesn’t flow from collector to emitter). Similarly the NPN doesn’t
conduct as the emitter (N) is negative (through the negative of the capacitor) and also the
base is negative. The PNP doesn’t work until the trigger voltage of the zener diode is
reached. At this trigger voltage the current flows through the zener. Since current flows
through the trigger element, not to the base of the PNP, the base of the PNP becomes
negative. Now, a trickle of current passes through the resistor and the motor such that
Vres + Vmot= Vcap – Vzener. The PNP would not start conducting until the voltage
(Vcap-Vzener) is equal to or greater than the Vbe of PNP which requires the current to
rise up to 0.6/R through the resistor before any current even starts to flow in the base of
PNP. At that point the Vbe of PNP is high enough for the PNP to start conducting. When
PNP turns on, a current starts flowing from the emitter to the collector. For the NPN to
work current must flow from collector to emitter. For this the base must be positive. Such
a situation arises only at the trigger voltage when the PNP conducts and thereby makes
the base of the NPN positive and NPN turns on. At this point the current from capacitor
flows through the NPN- to the motor and causes it to rotate. For NPN, Vce=Vcap-Vm.
When NPN turns on, current flows through the motor (Vm builds up) and Vce starts to
drop which reduces the voltage and the current in the resistor R which causes more of the
zener current to flow into the PNP base which increases the NPN current and lowers the
Vce even more. This process continues till NPN collector voltage drops below the Zener
voltage. At this point the PNP should stop conducting & motor should stop rotating, but
since the NPN device is already turned on i.e. in saturation, the Vce of NPN is at
approximately at zero potential, so the base of PNP is at ground potential via R, so the
current through the resistor reverses i.e instead of draining current away from the base of
PNP it starts to supply extra base current, taking the zener diode essentially out of the
circuit. This results in even more NPN current but it also starts to drop the voltage on the
capacitor since it has to now supply most of the current flowing through the motor. The
motor draws current until the voltage in the circuit is able to provide minimum Vbe to
keep the transistors on or able to overcome the motor resistance. Now, the voltage in the
capacitor again rises until it reaches the trigger voltage of the trigger element and the
above cycle repeats.

Comments on Solar Engine: The advantage of this circuit is the components are easily
available & easy to build. The disadvantage of this circuit is zener based SE is highly
tolerant to motor types, transistor parameters and solar panels used. One more
disadvantage being that zener draws more and more power as it reaches the “trigger”
point and if the solar cell can’t provide enough power to overcome this extra current
drawn by Zener, it’ll stabilize at a point where the Zener leaks as much current as the
solar cells provide.

Circuit modifications: Here, you can use zener rated between 2 to 4 volts & also you
can play with R (feedback resistor) & C (storage capacitor) values. Increasing C would
make the circuit take more time to charge to the trigger voltage, but at the same time the
on period of motor run would also increase i.e. (longer bursts at less frequent rates).
Varying the feedback resistor will help in making the bot tolerant to motor variants &
inefficiency. Also increasing R along with increased C would help in reducing the off
time of the motor i.e. (longer bursts at little more frequent rates than previous case). Try
using R of 2.2 to 50 kilo ohms and C of 4700 microfarad to 47,000 microfarad
(depending on load connected). Feel free to experiment.

Flashing LED –based: Flashing LED’s what are they?? This was also my first reaction.
Just as the name suggests, these LED’s are flashing at some rate (say just like you flash a
led from a 555 timer). A flashing LED is just an LED with a built-in microcircuit to
cause it to flash periodically at a low frequency, typically 2-3Hz (2 -3 flashes per
second).Their flash frequency is fixed so their use is limited. They are designed to be
connected directly to a supply with no series resistor requirement. But the
important part is they need minimum 2 to 3 volts for flashing. So this minimum
voltage requirement can be used as trigger point. A flashing LED is a more efficient
variant than Zener diodes. Zener diodes draw more and more power as they reach
the “trigger” point, whereas FLED draws current only when it flashes.
Working:Charges build up in the capacitor starting from 0 volts. The base and the
emitter of the PNP are positive (emitter positive directly through the positive terminal of
the capacitor and base through the resistor and the motor). Since both base and emitter
are positive the PNP transistor doesn’t work (current doesn’t flow from collector to
emitter). Similarly the NPN doesn’t conduct as the emitter (N) is negative (through the
negative of the capacitor) and also the base is negative. The FLED is an integrated circuit
that needs a minimum voltage to operate and flash the LED. While the FLED is off the
current through the FLED is very low. When the FLED is on, a pulse of current passes
through the FLED. The PNP doesn’t work until the voltage across the capacitor equals
the trigger voltage of the FLED. The solar cell charges the main capacitor until the
voltage is high enough for the FLED to start flashing. When FLED starts flashing, current
flows through the FLED and the base of the PNP becomes negative. Hence the PNP
conducts and current flows from the emitter to collector. Now current passes through the
PNP into the base of the NPN transistor and it turns on. At this point the current from
capacitor flows through the NPN to the motor and causes it to rotate. The base of PNP is
fed current by the FLED and the resistor(R). Now, the voltage across the capacitor starts
to fall below the trigger voltage. Thus, when the voltage falls below the FLED trigger
point, FLED stops conducting and current continues to flow into base of the PNP by way
of R (since NPN is already on, the collector which is connected to the motor and the
resistor goes low & this places a voltage across the resistor which provides more base
current for the PNP which makes it turn on even more).The motor rotation continues until
the main capacitor is discharged to less than 0.7V which is the minimum required Vbe to
keep PNP & NPN on. Now the voltage in the capacitor again rises until it reaches the
trigger voltage of the trigger element and the above cycle repeats.

Comments on solar engine: The advantage of this circuit is it is much more efficient
than zener based SE as it draws current only when it flashes (there is no continuous
current drawn as in zener) and it is less tolerant to motor type used. The disadvantage is
the component is not that easily available and it is not as efficient as voltage monitoring
based SE until you work on this circuit i.e. working on selection of right component
values (motors, transistor parameters, Solar panels, feedback resistor etc.) for the SE.

Circuit modifications: Try varying R & C values (as in previous case) as well as varying
the triggering point by addition of a led or a diode in series with FLED. Here, varying the
trigger point would vary the burst time of the motor. Say for example the trigger point
(FLED on) is 2.5 volt, the capacitor will take some time to reach that point and then
motor runs for a time until base emitter voltage of the transistor goes below 0.7 volt. Now
if you add a diode in series then the trigger point would go up to 3.2, so capacitor would
take more time to charge to that point, but it would make the motor run for more time i.e.
voltage has to come down from 3.2 to 0.7 whereas in previous case it came down from
2.5 to 0.7. It’s the same like longer bursts at lesser frequent rates v/s shorter bursts at
higher frequent rates.

Note: Don’t increase the trigger point so high that it becomes harder for solar panel to
charge to that point. Feel to experiment.
Note: The values of all the components used in the above solar engines are going vary
with motor, transistor gain & solar panels you choose.

Now, that a brief outline has been provided regarding the usage of solar energy & to
build the electronic circuitry behind a solar powered robot. So, you can go ahead with
designing and building your first solar powered bot.