The floating light bulb: Theory vs Practice

Yes – You can go to Amazon.com today and buy one of these gimmicky toys that float a magnet in the air. Some of which will even float a circuit that can light an LED and become a floating light bulb. A floating light bulb that powers on with wireless energy? What a time to live!

A quote from Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote “The Sentinel” (which later on became the basis for the science fiction movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”), goes along the lines:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

This is what led me to the Engineering path. Because, if the advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, who creates the technology is a real-life wizard. Who creates the technology? The engineers and scientists all around this world. So let me complement his quote with my own thoughts:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Therefore, engineers and scientists are the true real-life wizards.

Of course, if I’m writing about it is because I went through the engineering exercise. And boy, I thought it was an “easy” project. You see these projects of floating stuff around the internet, but nobody speaks about what goes wrong. So here we’ll explore why people spend so much time tweaking their setup and what are the traps along the way.

But first, some results to motivate you to read further:

 

Prof. Christian Hubicki was kind enough to let me pursue this as a graduate course project in Advanced Control Systems class at FSU, so I ended up with a “project report” on it. It is in the link below:

Full 11-page report with all the data

But if you don’t want to read all of that, here’s a list of practical traps I learned during this project:

  1. DON’T try fancy control techniques if you don’t have fast and accurate hardware. This project WILL require you more than a 10-bit ADC and more than 3-5 kS/s. The dynamics are very fast because the solenoid is fast. And you want a fast solenoid to be able to control the levitating object! Unless you can have a large solenoid inductance and a rise time in the order of ~100ms, there’s no way an Arduino implementation can control this. I’m think a nice real-time DAQ controller (like the ones offered by NI) could work here. But an Arduino is just too strapped in specs to cut it! The effects of sampling and digitization are too restrictive. It MIGHT work in some specific configurations, but it is not a general solution (and certainly it didn’t work for me).
  2. Analog circuits are fast – why not use them? Everyone (in the hobby electronics world) thinks Arduino is a silver bullet for everything. Don’t forget an op-amp is 100’s of times faster than a digital circuit!
  3. Bang-Bang! You see many implementations in the web use a hysteresis (or bang-bang) controller. The bang-bang controller is ideal for cheap projects because it deals well with the non-linearities gracefully. But it is not bullet-proof either. It will become unstable even with high bandwidth in some cases if the non-linearity is strong enough.
  4. Temperature Effects: The dynamic characteristics of your solenoid will change as it heats up (you’re dissipating power to turn it on!). So it can get very confusing if you have, say, a PID controller, to tune the gains because the gains will be different depending on the temperature of the coil. Since this effect is very slow (order 10 minutes!) it can result in you chasing your own tail because you’re tuning a plant that is changing with time!
  5. The wireless TX introduces noise! This one is particular to this project: If you’re using a Hall effect sensor to sense the presence of the floating object (by its magnetic field), then your Hall sensor will also measure the solenoid strength! Apart from that, the TX is also generating a high-frequency magnetic field, which will also be measured in the Hall effect sensor signal. The effect of the TX is very small (~2mV) buy it appears in the scope. The problem is that Arduinos don’t have low-pass filtering in their ADC inputs. So anything higher than the sampling rate will appear as an “Aliased” signal, which is very nasty to deal with.
  6. Make sure your solenoid can lift your object and more. This is an obvious one but I think it is easy to overlook because you need to over-design it. I designed my solenoid to lift 100 grams of weight. But in the end, I could only work with 35 grams because the controller needed a lot of space to work. So overdesign is really crucial here. I ended up shaving a lot of mass from the floating object because I couldn’t lift the original design’s mass!

I’d like to put a more complete tutorial on making this, but since I already invested a lot of time in putting the report together, I think if you put some time on reading it and the conclusions from the measurements/simulations you will be able to reproduce this design or adapt the concepts to your design. Let me know if you think this was useful or maybe if you need any help!

Author: Fernando Zigunov

I'm a brazilian Mechanical Engineer, aspiring to become a PhD candidate soon! I'm currently an R&D specialist at a refrigeration contracting company, researching for new products to push the industrial refrigeration market technologies forward.

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