Switching a 5V DC motor with a microbit.

This post shows how to use a BBC microbit to control a 5V fan or DC motor using a FET switch. The circuit shows how we can use a transistor to control a device that needs more current than the microbit can supply.

A demo showcasing the microbit’s sensor technologies was set up in the office I’m lucky enough to loiter in when not working offshore. One of the demos showed how the microbit can detect temperature. When the microbit is heated up above a certain temperature with a hair dryer, the microbit turns on a  fan to cool itself down. The fan is  turned off the fan when the microbit detects that the temperature has fallen below a pre-set threshold. I don’t have much use for a hair dryer nowadays (baldy matt), but I lashed up a little circuit to enable a fan to turn on when a pin on the microbit goes high. I passed this over to the rest of the team who were setting up the demo to add the temperature sensing code.

The problem is that the fan operates at 5V and needs a fair whack of current compared with what we can squeeze out of a microbit pin. The microbit operates from a 3V battery pack. So how do we use the microbit to turn on a device that operates at 5V and enable enough current for the fan?

Short answer, we use a transistor switch. In this case, I used an N-channel FET, specificially a 2N7000. There are other types of transistor that can be used and different arrangements of circuitry, but this is one of the simplest and most reliable setups for this example.

As we are using 5V battery pack for the fan, we can use the same 5V battery pack to connect with the micro USB connector on the microbit. We could use independent 5V and 3V battery packs, so long as the grounds on the battery packs are connected. Being able to have separate battery packs for the microcontroller and the device being powered is an important idea which allows us to switch e.g. 12V devices using the microbit, where you couldn’t share the same power supply between the microbit and the device. The device being powered is often called a ‘load’, as it loads the power supply.

 

Circuit layout of the fan controller. The pins on the FET are labelled.

A drawing of the circuit can be seen above. I used Fritzing to make this. The three pins of the transistor are called ‘source’, ‘gate’ and ‘drain’. The source and drain are named as they are the source and drain for the charge carriers inside the transistor that allow the current – in this case electrons. The gate, is well, a gate, that enables a current through the transistor when it is held at a higher voltage than the drain

The source of the transistor is connected to the negative of the battery pack, as this supplies the electrons that are the charge carrier in this type of transistor. This negative pin on the battery pack is also connected to the ground of the microbit through the USB connector. The drain on the transistor is connected to the negative pin on the DC motor. The positive pin of the motor is connected to the positive pin on the battery. The positive pin on the battery is also connected to the microbit through the USB connector, as the battery pack supplies +5V, which is the same as USB supplies.

Here’s a photo of the device in real life. The blue oblong is a 5V rechargeable USB power pack. The fan is on in the photo. The transistor can be seen as the tiny black think on the breadboard. A green clip connects pad 0 on the microbit to the gate of the transistor. The wiring connecting all the pins between the USB connectors is hidden underneath the connectors as about the only area I am in any way tidy is with wiring.

So how does this the transistor switch work? Many people better than myself have written on this. I’d recommend having a play on the excellent Falstad circuit simulator. Go to ‘circuits’ ‘MOSFETS’ ‘switch’ and click on the little open switch symbol to close it. Watch the flow of charge (the current). I modified and labelled the example circuit to show how the microbit circuit is laid out and put a screen grab below. In the Falstad simulation, the switch connects to the gate pin on the FET to a 3V power rail. This represents pin 0 on the microbit. Pin 0 going high is simulated by closing the switch and connecting the gate of the FET to 3V. Pin 0 going low is simulated by opening the switch and having the gate of the FET go to 0V.

When the gate is connected high, the FET switch is on and allows a current from the drain to the source. When it is not high, the FET will not allow charge to flow. The 5 Ohm resistor represents the load on the circuit, in my case the fan. I don’t know what the resistance of the fan is, but 5 Ohm is good enough for the simulation.

The battery pack is simulated by the +5V power rail which connects to the positive side of the 5 Ohm resistor. So, using a switch from a lower voltage rail, we can control the current supplied by a higher voltage supply. This idea is used in industrial controllers to allow little microcontrollers to operate machinery that runs at a far higher voltage than the microcontroller and used far more current than a microcontroller can supply from its output pins. I put the Falstad code at the bottom of this page. You can copy and paste it into Falstad. Go to ‘File’ ‘Import from text’ and paste in the code.

Falstad simulator FET switch layout.

The +ve on the fan motor is connected to the battery pack’s +ve rail. The -ve on the fan motor is connected to the drain on the FET. When a high voltage is applied to the gate on the FET (3V from the microbit pad 0), the semiconductors inside the FET are put in a state that allows a current through the drain to the source. As the source is connected to ground, there is now a current from the battery through the fan and to ground. So with the gate voltage high, the circuit is complete and the fan can operate. When the gate voltage is not high (pulled to ground by pad 0 on the microbit), the FET’s semiconductors are in a state that will not allow a current through the FET and the fan, so the fan does not operate.

I wrote some micropython code to test it all out. Please find this below. Button A toggles pad 0 on the edge connector high and low. Note that when the microbit is powered on, I set the pad to a known state, in this case low. You should always configure the state of pins that are being used to control devices to a known state at power up. Sometimes when you start up a microcontroller, the pins will go to a state you didn’t anticipate whatever the data sheet says, which could cause whatever you are controlling to turn on or off when you didn’t expect it to. How do you think I found this out?

Here’s the micropython code I used to test the circuit with.

''' Toggle pin0 on button A press. '''

from microbit import *

TOGGLE = False

def display_leds(toggle_flag):
    if toggle_flag:
        display.show(Image.TARGET)
    else:
        display.show(Image.ASLEEP)

def setup():
    write_pin0(0)
    display.show(Image.ASLEEP)

def write_pin0(toggle_flag):
    if toggle_flag:
        pin0.write_digital(1)
    else:
        pin0.write_digital(0)

setup()
while True:
    if button_a.was_pressed():
        TOGGLE = not TOGGLE
        write_pin0(TOGGLE)
        display_leds(TOGGLE)

Here’s the Falstad simulator code. Copy and paste it into the box you get when you click on ‘File’ ‘Import from text’ in Falstad.

$ 1 0.000005 10.634267539816555 50 5 50
s 288 224 288 304 0 0 false
w 288 128 400 128 0
r 400 128 400 288 0 5
w 400 320 400 336 0
f 288 304 400 304 0 1.5 0.02
R 288 128 240 128 0 0 40 5 0 0 0.5
g 400 336 400 352 0
x 432 213 465 216 4 24 fan
x 416 310 534 313 4 24 2n700\sFET
x 139 195 281 198 4 24 microbit\spin\s0
x -7 284 267 287 4 24 switch\sclosed\s\q\spin\s0\shigh
x -6 258 242 261 4 24 switch\sopen\s\q\spin\s0\slow
x 121 112 251 115 4 24 battery\spack
R 272 208 224 208 0 0 40 3 0 0 0.5
w 272 208 288 208 0
w 288 208 288 224 0

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