Normally, when a project calls for addressable LEDs, we just throw a strip of WS2812s and an Arduino together, cobble together some code from the examples in the FastLED library, and call it a day. We don’t put much thought into what’s going on under the hood, unless and until we run into an LED project that’s a little more challenging.
Inventor [Leo Fernekes] found himself in such a situation recently, when he pitched in on an LED art installation. The project called for rings of LED bars around the trunks of trees on a private estate. The physical size of the project and the aesthetic requirements created significant challenges, though. One of these was finding a way to control the LED bars, each of which draws about 100 mA and needs to be very smoothly dimmed. [Leo] looked at the WS2811 LED driver, but found that the low drive current and the 8-bit PWM output failed to tick either of those boxes.
[Leo] solved both problems by using two of the three PWM channels on the chip in concert — one to control the current and one to PWM the LED. The circuit he came up with is deceptively simple — just four transistors, a Schottky diode, and a bunch of passives. The other clever bit is the data interface between LED bars, which can be configured as either single-ended or differential. This allows the same interface to be used for the short distance between bars on a tree, and the longer runs between trees.
As usual, [Leo] does a great job of explaining his design and how it works, which we find very instructional. He did something similar when he managed to dim a non-dimmable LED fixture.