Power Raspberry Pi directly with Lithium Ion rechargeable batteries

From reading Adafruit’s excellent dissection of the (then new) RPi Model B+ power supply I had learnt (from the schematics) that 5V GPIO pin was directly connected to RT8020AGQW step down DC/DC converter (5v to 3.3V/1.8V) which automatically switches to a low-dropout mode.  So it should be possible to power a RPi B+ with much less than 5V at the GPIO 5v pin. Relevant excerpts from the data sheet:

Two operational modes are available : PWM/Low-Dropout auto-switch and shutdown modes. Internal synchronous rectifier with low RDS(ON) dramatically reduces conduction loss at PWM mode. No external Schottky diode is required in practical application. The RT8020 enters Low-Dropout mode when normal PWM cannot provide regulated output voltage by continuously turning on the upper PMOS.

Rds_RPi

Since I did not have the right equipment to test for this at that time I tried calculating it from the datasheet. Assuming a worst case Rds of 0.5 ohms for the PMOS at a current of 700mA (model B+, camera module, USB wireless) I get a voltage drop of 0.35V across the PMOS. So if we ideally want 3.3v at the output, then VIN should be 3.65V. At this point I should add that I am not completely sure if that is the correct way to estimate the dropout.

Now that I own an adjustable power supply I wanted to test that out. The only RPi I had on hand was a model A+ so thats what I used.

DISCLAIMER: All numbers below are from a very rough test and come with no guarantees. This means that if your house burns down or something terrible happens because of using something I said then I am not  to blame for that.

Test A:

I tried booted the RPi at 5V, with a keyboard and HDMI monitor connected. Then I launched Minecraft (wish the RPi foundation included a stability testing benchmark) and started lowering the voltage. For the short duration of time that I tested I was able to run without any brownouts at 3.5V. Going lower to 3.4v or even 3.45V would cause random reboots, which brings us to the next test.

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Test B:

While the RPi was rebooting I increased voltage back to 3.5V but noticed that was not sufficient and the RPi stayed stuck in a continuous reboot cycle. I was able to see the RPi booting up messages but at some point during that it was get reset. In hindsight I should have tried to make a video to figure out when exactly the reset happened. I next tried 3.6V which also did not work. I was only able to stop the reboot cycle at 3.7V.

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Test C:

Next I unplugged the keyboard and plugged in wireless dongle and again tried lowering the voltage. I was able to sustain a download over wifi with X server loaded at 3.5V.

Conclusion

The calculation was fairly accurate and as expected the model A+ was able to operate at a lower voltage than calculated because of using less current.

Coming back to the title of this post, I went down this path because I wanted to minimize components and was wondering if I could directly power the RPi for my remotely controlled home rover from the Li Ion battery. Searching for lithium ion battery discharge curves I see that at 1C rate reaching 3.5V would be somewhere in the 60% to 80% discharge capacity of the battery. So if I want to use the full battery capacity I should use a step-up converter, but if I don’t care about that I should be able to power up a Rpi with a lithium battery connected directory to Vin. Monitoring the current and voltage to the RPi might also be a good option to ensure stability to raise early warning if the voltage goes too low.

Relevant products:

Adafruit INA219 breakout to monitor current and voltage to the RaspberryPi.

CPS-3205 power supply bought from ebay

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