Liitokala Engineer Lii-500 Automation

Table of Contents

1 Overview

The Liitokala Engineer Lii-500 is a universal chemistry 4-cell smart charger manufactured by the well-known Liitokala brand. It is very popular with people building battery packs out of second life 18650 Lithium-Ion cells because of its reasonable price and discharge capacity testing feature (NOR TEST mode). I own a number of those chargers and I use them as part of my cell assessment workflow. What I have found however is that entering cell capacity values reported by the charger manually into a computer is both a bit tedious as well as prone to mistakes. Therefore I have made attempts at automating the process by modding the charger.

The overall idea was to reverse-engineer the charging and discharging circuits to the point that I would flash my own firmware into the microcontroller inside giving me the ability to automate the charging/discharging process and read out the measured cell parameters.

Please take note, that all of the content here relates to the Lii-500 charger not the Lii-500S charger. The Lii-500S is a newer version of the Lii-500, the outward appearance is very similar but the internal board microcontroller and LCD screen are entirely different.

2 The charger hardware

The popularity of the Lii-500 charger means, that there are multiple modifications and hacks already published, a quick search on youtube reveals a number of videos showcasing the internals or multiple hacks that are possible with this charger. In particular:

I first thought to investigate the MCU that was inside the charger but unfortunately the chip is unmarked. I could just get rid of it and wire in my own MCU but I figured that I don't want to modify the charger this heavily in case I would like to sell it some day. I have however figured out a different idea to get the cell information I wanted - sniffing the communications between the MCU and the LCD screen. Just a small drop-in pass-through board would be required and it would fit nicely in the existing case so this is the route I went on!

3 The LCD and its interface

3.1 Electrical

I have found that some of the LCD modules had unmarked controller chips on the back of the board:

thumb-lcd-module-back.jpg

However, by disassembling the next charger I discovered that it's LCD module contained a marked chip as the LCD controller:

thumb-lcd-module-holtek.jpg

The chip is Holtek 1621B the datasheet is easily found. As I have previously reverse engineered the protocol from scratch I was happy to find that everything matches with what the datasheet describes. The LCD driver chip has much more features than are used by the MCU (for example a watchdog timer). The one interesting tidbit is that the LCD driver chip contains no GPIO pins to drive a transistor controlling the backlight. What the designers choose instead is to reuse the buzzer outputs for the backlight driver. When the LCD backlight enable command is sent the buzzer output is configured to output a 4 kHz tone for the buzzer which I assume drives the backlight transistor.

For posterity I have left all of the reverse-engineering process description below.

By virtue of educated guessing (wide traces -> power ;) and connecting a logic analyzer I have figured out that the interface here is a rather slow one-directional SPI data flow, the pinout of the LCD module is the following:

Pin number Color Signal Notes
1 Red +5V power  
2 Black MOSI  
3 Yellow SCK Frequency is 62.5 kHz
4 Green /CS  
5 Blue GND  
6     Not present but marked on board front

It's good to take a close note of this wiring together with the colors as the pin numbers are marked on the other side of the LCD and we definately would not want to swap +5V and GND. In order to make experimentation and later connecting the sniffer board I unsoldered the wire and put an angled 2.54 mm pin header. The image below also contains the pin 1 marked for your convenience and later reference:

thumb-lcd-module-connector.jpg

3.2 SPI Protocol

The SPI protocol consists of a series of unidirectional transfers from the MCU to the LCD controller. As far as I've seen there is no readback in the other direction, it is possible that the missing pin 6 on the LCD board layout was supposed to be the MISO pin but this did not end up being used. The SPI clocking setup is CPOL=0 (Clock is Low when inactive), CPHA=0 (Data is valid on leading Clock edge) and enable line is Active Low.

There are two kinds of transfers. The first kind is a "control" or "command" transfer which is always 12 bits and starts with 0x08 as the first 4 bits transmitted. An example of such a transfer captured is provided below:

example-command-spi-transfer.png

This is the first control transfer sent to the LCD when the charger is powered on and you can see a short sequence before it where all 3 SPI pins are shortly grounded. This might either be a firmware glitch when setting up the GPIO lines or SPI peripheral or a reset sequence. The first 3 bits of the transfer seems to indicate whether it's a control transfer (0x08) or LCD framebuffer update (later seen code 0x0A). The entire bit sequence of 0x803 is only one of a number of commands sent to the LCD controller that have been observed and summarized in the table below:

Command Description Notes
0x803 Controller reset Sent during initialization
0x853 Unknown Sent during initialization
0x807 Unknown Sent during initialization
0x880 Unknown Sent during initialization
0x813 Backlight ON  
0x810 Backlight OFF  

The initialization sequence consists of the following sequence of commands: 0x803, 0x853, 0x807, 0x880.

I have tried to figure out the meaning behind all of those control commands by removing them from the initialization sequence and watching for any differences in behaviour. This approach has been successful only in identifying the first command code (0x803) as being critical (perhaps a RESET) for the controller to accept any commands at all. The meaning of the 0x810 and 0x813 codes was immidiately obvious as they are sent by the original charger firmware when the backlight changes state and thus were easy to spot.

The second kind of transfer observed is the LCD framebuffer update which is sent when the charger wants to change what is displayed on the screen. The transfer is much longer and an example has been provided below:

example-lcd-framebuffer-spi-transfer.png

With observation and some Arduino experiments I have deduced the structure of this transfer to be as follows:

Field Bit count Description
Code 4 Always 0x0A
Address 5 Framebuffer address in 4-bit units
FB up to 128 The framebuffer contents

The full framebuffer length (128 bits) can be noticed in the first post-initialization transfer where all of the LCD elements are being shown likely as a simple QA check for the factory staff. Later transfers do not use all of the bits. With this knowledge I have created Arduino code to figure out the exact layout of the LCD framebuffer:

#include <string.h>

const int pinMOSI = 9;
const int pinSCK = 8;
const int pinCS = 7;

const int buttonUP = 3;
const int buttonDOWN = 2;

void sckEdge(void){
  digitalWrite(pinSCK, LOW);
  delayMicroseconds(6);
  digitalWrite(pinSCK, HIGH);
  delayMicroseconds(9);
}

void xmitFrame(byte cmd, int offset /* Offset in 4-bit chunks */, byte frame[16]) {
  digitalWrite(pinSCK, LOW);
  digitalWrite(pinCS, LOW);

  for(int j = 3; j >= 0; j--) {
    digitalWrite(pinMOSI, bitRead(cmd, j));      
    sckEdge();  
  }

  for(int j = 4; j >= 0; j--) {
    digitalWrite(pinMOSI, bitRead(offset, j));      
    sckEdge();  
  }
  
  for (int i = 0; i < 16; i++) {
    for(int j = 7; j >= 0; j--) {
      digitalWrite(pinMOSI, bitRead(frame[i], j));      
      sckEdge();  
    }
  }

  digitalWrite(pinSCK, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(pinCS, HIGH);  
}

void xmitWords(unsigned short words[], size_t n) {
  digitalWrite(pinSCK, LOW);
  digitalWrite(pinCS, LOW);
  
  for (int i = 0; i < n; i++) {
    for(int j = 11; j >= 0; j--) {
      digitalWrite(pinMOSI, bitRead(words[i], j));      
      sckEdge();  
    }
  }

  digitalWrite(pinSCK, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(pinCS, HIGH);
}

int i = 0;

void setup() {
  Serial.begin(115200);
  Serial.println("XSL-Lii500A-B2 LCD test code");
    
  pinMode(pinMOSI, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(pinSCK, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(pinCS, OUTPUT);
  
  pinMode(buttonUP, INPUT_PULLUP);
  pinMode(buttonDOWN, INPUT_PULLUP);

  digitalWrite(pinMOSI, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(pinSCK, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(pinCS, HIGH);  

  /* This may be some kind of reset sequence */
  digitalWrite(pinMOSI, LOW);
  digitalWrite(pinSCK, LOW);
  digitalWrite(pinCS, LOW);
  delayMicroseconds(2);
  digitalWrite(pinMOSI, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(pinSCK, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(pinCS, HIGH);  
  delayMicroseconds(50);

  unsigned short w1[1];

  // send initialization instructions
  w1[0] = 0x803;
  xmitWords(w1, 1);   
  
  w1[0] = { 0x853 };
  xmitWords(w1, 1);
  delayMicroseconds(5);

  w1[0] = { 0x807 };
  xmitWords(w1, 1);
  delayMicroseconds(5);

  w1[0] = { 0x880 };
  xmitWords(w1, 1);
  delayMicroseconds(5);

  /* Enable backlight */
  w1[0] = { 0x813 };
  xmitWords(w1, 1);
  delayMicroseconds(5);

  /* Use 0x810 to disable backlight */
  
}

void loop() { 

    if (digitalRead(buttonUP)) {
      i += 1;
    }
    
    if (digitalRead(buttonDOWN)) {
      i -= 1;
    }

    char buf[128];
    sprintf(buf, "i %02d byte %02d bit %02d", i, i /  8, 7-(i % 8));
    Serial.println(buf);
   
    byte zeroframe[16] = {
      0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00,
      0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00, 0x00
    };

    bitSet(zeroframe[i / 8], 7-(i % 8));
    xmitFrame(0x0A, 0, zeroframe);

    unsigned short w1[] = { 0x813 };
    xmitWords(w1, 1);
    delayMicroseconds(15);
    
    delay(100);
      
}

Relevant logic probe captures which can be opened in the Saleae Logic software and are provided in the Extras section at the end.

3.3 Framebuffer layout

Using the above code I figured out the mapping between the particular framebuffer bits and different pieces of the LCD display. Please note, that the LCD module that I had had the silkscreen marking of "XSL-Lii500A-B2". In case you find a different LCD module in your particular charger you might find that your mapping is different.

thumb-lcd-display-layout.jpg

The numbers on the image correspond to indices inside the framebuffer. For example, if you set the bit number 99 (starting from 0 being the first bit) in the framebuffer then the "End" marker will show on the LCD.

4 The SPI sniffer

After confirming the basic facts about the protocol the first version of the sniffer was breadboarded and later improved upon:

thumb-spi-sniffer-breadboard.jpg

The SPI sniffer itself was built using the popular Blue Pill board using the STM32F103C8 microcontroller. It has been chosen because it contains a built-in USB interface that will be used in the final version to transmit data from the LCD to a PC.

4.1 Bus tap board

The next order of business was to somehow bring out the LCD wires from outside of the charger enclosure neatly in order to connect them to whatever will be snffing the traffic. For this purpose a small breadboard has been used together with three 2.54 mm angled headers. All of this fits neatly at the back of the LCD module with the external wire running down the middle and out of a air vent in the case:

thumb-spi-sniffer-breakout-board.jpg

After putting the bus tap board and the original PCB in please do not forget to put in some heat-conductive paste or glue into the small rectangular slots where two NTC sensors fit in. These slots have been marked on the photo above.

4.2 The sniffer code

The code uses USB to transfer the SPI traffic to the host for interpretation. It was based around a CDC-ACM example. It doesn't have a proper USB VID and PID currently.

The SPI transfer content is sent out using a rather ghetto packet format which should provide reasonable stream synchronization and recovery in case the reader jumps into a middle of an already transmitted packet. It's sure not future-proof though and some other way will need to be devised (maybe HDLC or PPP framing?).

The code uses interrupts to detect all of the /CS and clock edges instead of polling or using the built-in SPI peripheral. I have found interrupts to be more reliable than simple polling and the built-in SPI peripheral is not useable in our case as it can reliably handle SPI transfers that are not multiples of 8 or 16 bits in length.

The sniffer code has been built using the excellent libopencm3 library for ARM Cortex M3 microcontrollers with the Makefiles and overall structure copied from our supreme leader Mike's opencm3 examples.

The only significant gotcha worth mentioning is the fact that both PB10 and PB13 should be connected to /CS to properly separate falling and rising edges of /CS to mark the beginning and end of SPI transfers. I have tried to trigger a single pin on both edges but when the interrupt function executes there seems to be no way to check which edge has triggered it. The code has been published on github.

One non-standard caveat is that I added an additional target to the makefile which is used to generate a unique USB serial number for the device:

➜  spi_sniffer git:(master) ✗ make serial
echo '#define USB_SERIALNO "' | tr -d "\r\n" > serial_number.h
uuidgen | tr -d "\r\n" >> serial_number.h
echo '"' >> serial_number.h
➜  spi_sniffer git:(master) ✗ cat serial_number.h 
#define USB_SERIALNO "0d79079b-a1c1-4d59-9035-ad77506fbe99"
➜  spi_sniffer git:(master) ✗ 

This file is used so that you can assign a serial number to each SPI sniffer device you build allowing the host to differentiate between interfaces for different chargers.

4.3 Interpreting the data

Interpreting the raw data sent via serial port to a USB host is performed using Python code published here. The Python encodes the LCD layout reverse-engineered as well as provides some logic to detect nonsensical data that can be received from the LCD (for example 7-segment codes which do not correspond to any characters) allowing for some protection against invalid data begin passed downwards to your application code. The end result is that the data shown on the LCD is reliably replicated in the tool's output. For example, when no cells are connected and the LCD displays a 'null' string the sniffer produces:

2021-06-24 13:24.14 [info     ] lcd state                      state={'null': True}

when a cell is being charged:

2021-06-24 13:25.06 [info     ] lcd state                      state={'capacity': '0 mAh', 'cell_select': '1', 'mode': 'charge', 'end': False, 'usb': False, 'voltage': '4.19 V', 'current_select': '500 mA', 'time': {'hours': 0, 'minutes': 0, 'tick': True, 'h': True}, 'ir': '125 mΩ'}

and when charging finishes:

2021-06-24 13:43.29 [info     ] lcd state                      state={'capacity': '24 mAh', 'cell_select': '1', 'mode': 'charge', 'end': True, 'usb': False, 'voltage': '4.2 V', 'current_select': '500 mA', 'time': {'hours': 0, 'minutes': 15, 'tick': True, 'h': True}, 'ir': '125 mΩ'}

5 The sidekick board

In order to make the entire idea easier to use I have began developing a custom PCB with streamlined connectors and small footprint. The board is basically a STM32 Blue Pill remixed for this application. There have been multiple iterations of this board already designed (REV 1, REV 2), REV 2 was the first one that was manufactured. Currently the REV 3 board is getting its last design touches and will likely get manufactured together with the sensor board to save on shipping costs.

The REV 2 board:

thumb-sdkk-lii500-rev2-board.jpg

Attached on the back of the charger LCD:

thumb-sdkk-lii500-rev2-attached.jpg

6 The sidekick sensor board

In order to facilitate the probing of each cell voltage as well as temperature a sensor board has been designed. This board is still in the prototype phase.

7 Future developments

This is not by all means a finished project. The future direction of development is planned to be (in the order of highest-priority on top):

  • support for probing of the cell voltage during the discharge cycle to plot individual cell discharge curves
  • support for sensing the temperature of each cell to detect abnormal heat, the charger itself has two NTC elements built in however they seem to be only used as a safety feature, the data from them is not displayed
  • support for other chargers (starting likely from the Lii-500S)
  • support for monitoring more than one charger with a single board

8 Addendum

Author: Maciej Grela

Created: 2021-08-05 22:28

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