WARNING: this guide deals with potentially incendiary power and is best suited to makers with a solid grasp of electrical concepts and safety protocols.

USB Power Delivery (USB-PD) is a specification for high-power charging of phones, tablets and laptop computers. Conventional USB power adapters of yesteryear could slowly trickle charge at a few Watts, while USB-PD can potentially deliver up to 100 Watts (and up to 240W in the latest revision).

What makes this a “hacks” guide is that we’d like to use this for more than powering phones and computers. Inexpensive and ubiquitous USB-A chargers and power banks have proven useful for powering small DIY electronic projects, and USB-PD allows us to take these ideas to the next level.

Some unconventional uses for USB-PD have included:

  • Retrofitting vintage computers and A/V gear — substituting bulky or hard-to-find wall-wart power supplies with USB-PD equivalents, and/or replacing lead-acid or NiCd batteries with long-running alternatives.
  • Large-scale portable NeoPixel projects, such as Burning Man art bikes and increasingly elaborate costumes.
  • Offbeat projects — cyberdecks, social robots and so forth.
  • Portable fans for travel and camping.

There are other solutions for each of these, either ready-made or custom. One might delve into the incendiary world of RC batteries…which are usually designed for competitive racing and may lack even basic safety features. Working with an established standard and off-the-shelf products can make things safer, more economical, interchangeable, and still be a useful thing for charging phones and tablets.

In a project where period-authentic video was desired, rather than using software filters over modern HD video, this vintage VHS camcorder was retrofitted with USB-PD and powered off a pocket-sized battery pack.

This bilge blower fan, normally powered off a boat’s 12 Volt electrical system, was adapted to work with USB-PD for wall or battery operation when traveling. The wall adapter and USB cable are unmodified and still useful for routine device charging.

This self-contained LED matrix cube struggled to work off two old-school USB-A power banks working together. The new generation of USB-PD batteries will make such projects simpler and more reliable!

To the average consumer for the average use case, USB-PD is simple: plug in phone and it charges quickly. Easy!

Behind the scenes though, for the unconventional uses we’d like to try, USB-PD is full of special cases and “gotchas.” That’s what this guide is about.

Simpler Alternatives

Before we go off in the weeds, not every offbeat project requires USB-PD. For smaller tasks requiring less current, simple and inexpensive DC booster cables operate from ubiquitous USB-A ports, with a DC barrel jack at the business end. Plug, play, done!

Shot of a coiled USB to 2.1mm Male Barrel Jack Cable.
There's two standard ways to power electronics - USB or 5.5mm/2.1mm DC barrel jack. This or that! With this USB to 2.1mm Male Barrel Jack Cable, you can now power...
USB to 2.1mm DC Cable with Booster module
This cable is kinda fascinating - it has an integrated boost converter, so you can plug it into any USB port (from a computer, battery pack, etc) and it will give you a higher DC...
USB to 5.5mm DC Cable with Booster module
This cable is kinda fascinating - it has an integrated boost converter, so you can plug it into any USB port (from a computer, battery pack, etc) and it will give you a higher DC...
Video of a USB booster cable plugged into a laptop. A white hand flicks a switch on top of the booster, causing the display to report 9V to 12V.
This cable is kinda fascinating - it has an integrated boost converter, so you can plug it into any USB port (from a computer, battery pack, etc), and it will give you a higher DC...

This guide was first published on May 13, 2023. It was last updated on Mar 31, 2024.

This page (Overview) was last updated on Mar 08, 2024.

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