Star Trek Material Science is Finally Real: Transparent Wood

It’s not transparent aluminum, exactly, but it might be even better: transparent wood. Scientists at the University of Maryland have devised a way to remove all of its coloring, leaving behind an essentially clear piece of wood.

IMG_20160518_110605By boiling the block of wood in a NaOH and Na2SO chemical bath for a few hours the wood loses its lignin, which is gives wood its color. The major caveat here is that the lignin also gives wood strength; the colorless cellulose structure that remains is itself very fragile. The solution is to impregnate the transparent wood with an epoxy using about three vacuum cycles, which results in a composite that is stronger than the original wood.

There are some really interesting applications for this material. It does exhibit some haze so it is not as optimally transparent as glass but in cases where light and not vision is the goal — like architectural glass block — this is a winner. Anything traditionally build out of wood for its mechanical properties will be able to add an alpha color channel to the available options.

The next step is finding a way to scale up the process. At this point the process has only been successful on samples up to 1 centimeter thick. If you’re looking to build a starship out of this stuff in the meantime, your best bet is still transparent aluminum. We do still wonder if there’s a way to eliminate the need for epoxy, too.

Self-Driving Cars Get Tiny

There’s a car race going on right now, but it’s not on any sort of race track. There’s a number of companies vying to get their prototype on the road first. [Anurag] has already completed the task, however, except his car and road are functional models.

While his car isn’t quite as involved as the Google self driving car, and it doesn’t have to deal with pedestrians and other active obstacles, it does use a computer and various sensors to make decisions about how to drive. A Raspberry Pi 2 takes the wheel in this build, taking input from a Pi camera and an ultrasonic distance sensor. The Pi communicates to another computer over WiFi, where a neural network operates to make decisions about how to drive the car. It also makes decisions based on a database of pictures of the track, so it has a point of reference to go by.

The video of the car in action is worth a look. It’s not perfect, but it’s quite an accomplishment for this type of project. The possibility that self-driving car models could drive around model sets like model railroad hobbyists create is intriguing. Of course, this isn’t [Anurag]’s first lap around the block. He’s already been featured for building a car that can drive based on hand gestures. We’re looking forward to when he can collide with model busses.

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Chess Computers Improve Since 90s

The AlphaGo computer has been in the news recently for beating the top Go player in the world in four out of five games. This evolution in computing is a giant leap from the 90s when computers were still struggling to beat humans at chess. The landscape has indeed changed, as [Folkert] shows us with his chess computer based on a Raspberry Pi 3 and (by his own admission) too many LEDs.

The entire build is housed inside a chess board with real pieces (presumably to aid the human player) and an LED on every square. When the human makes a move, he or she inputs it into the computer via a small touch screen display. After that, the computer makes a move, indicated by lighting up the LEDs on the board and printing the move on the display. The Raspberry Pi is running the embla chess program, which has an Elo strength of about 1600.

While the computer isn’t quite powerful enough to beat Magnus Carlsen, we can only imagine how much better computers will be in the future. After all, this credit-card sized computer is doing what supercomputers did only a few decades ago. With enough Raspberry Pis, you might even be able to beat a grandmaster with your chess computer. Computer power aside, think of the advancements in fabrication technology (and access to it) which would have made this mechanical build a wonder back in the 90s too.

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Volkswagen Beetle – The Most Hackable Car

If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Of course it helps if your mousetrap is reliable, simple, cheap, and easy to work on. In the car world, look no further than arguably the most successful, and most hackable, car in history: the Volkswagen Type 1, more commonly known as the Beetle. The ways in which this car was modified to suit the needs of a wide range of people over its 65-year-long production run proves that great design, ease of use, and simplicity are the keys to success, regardless of the project or product.

Built by Ferdinand Porsche in 1930’s Germany, the Beetle was designed to be a car for anyone and everyone. Its leader at the time wanted a true “people’s car” (i.e. “Volkswagen”) that was affordable for a German family, could reliably travel at sustained highway speeds on the new German autobahns, and easily be repaired by its owners. The car features an air-cooled engine for simplicity and cost savings: no radiator, water pump, or coolant, plus reduced overall complexity. The engine can be easily removed by disconnecting the fuel line, the throttle cable, and the four bolts that hold it to the transaxle. The entire body is held on to the chassis by eighteen bolts and is also easy to remove by today’s standards. There’s no air conditioning, no power steering, and a rudimentary heater of sorts for the passenger cabin that blows more hot air depending on how fast the engine is running. But possibly the best example of its simplicity is the fact that the windshield washer mechanism is pressurised with air from the over-inflated spare tire, eliminating the need to install another piece of equipment in the car.

It’s not too big of a leap to realize how easily hackable this car is. Even Volkswagen realized this and used the platform to build a number of other vehicles: the Type 2 (otherwise known as the bus, van, hippie van, Kombi, etc.) the eclectic Karmann Ghia, and the Types 3 and 4. Parts of the Type 1 were used to build the Volkswagen 181, commonly referred to as “the Thing”. Ferdinand Porsche also used design elements and other parts of the Type 1 to build the first Porsche, essentially making a souped-up Beetle. The rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout of modern Porsches is a relic of this distant Beetle cousin. But the real magic is what people started doing to the Beetles in their backyards in the ’60s and 70s: turning them into buggies, off road machines, race cars, and hot rods that are still used today.

At some point around this time, a few people realized that the Beetle was uniquely suited to off-road racing. The type of suspension combined with the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout meant that even without four-wheel drive, this car could excel in desert racing. There are still classes in this race for stock Beetles and modified Beetles called Baja Bugs.

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OneSolver Does What Wolfram Can’t

Wolfram Alpha has been “helping” students get through higher math and science classes for years. It can do almost everything from solving Laplace transforms to various differential equations. It’s a little lacking when it comes to solving circuits, though, which is where [Grant] steps in. He’s come up with a tool called OneSolver which can help anyone work out a number of electrical circuits (and a few common physics problems, too).

[Grant] has been slowly building an online database of circuit designs that has gotten up to around a hundred unique solvers. The interesting thing is that the site implements a unique algorithm where all input fields of a circuits design can also become output fields. This is unique to most other online calculators because it lets you do things that circuit simulators and commercial math packages can’t. The framework defines one system of equations, and will solve all possible combinations, and lets one quickly home in on a desired design solution.

If you’re a student or someone who constantly builds regulators or other tiny circuits (probably most of us) then give this tool a shot. [Grant] is still adding to it, so it will only get better over time. This may be the first time we’ve seen something like this here, too, but there have been other more specific pieces of software to help out with your circuit design.

Minions Turn Your Keyboard into a Bluetooth Keyboard

Evil geniuses usually have the help of some anonymous henchmen or other accomplices, but for the rest of us these resources are usually out of reach. [Evan], on the other hand, is on his way to a helpful army of minions that will do his bidding: he recently built a USB-powered minion that turns a regular PS/2 mouse and keyboard into a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard.

[Evan] found his minion at a McDonald’s and took out essentially everything inside of it, using the minion as a case for all of the interesting bits. First he scavenged a PS/2 port from an old motherboard. An Arduino Nano is wired to an HC-05 Bluetooth chip to translate the signals from the PS/2 peripherals into Bluetooth. The HC-05 chip is a cheaper alternative to most other Bluetooth chips at around $3 vs. $40 for more traditional ones. The programming here is worth mentioning: [Evan] wrote a non-interrupt based and non-blocking PS/2 library for the Arduino that he open sourced which is the real jewel of this project.

Once all the wiring and programming is done [Evan] can turn essentially any old keyboard and mouse into something that’ll work on any modern device. He also put an NFC tag into the minion’s head so that all he has to do to connect the keyboard and mouse is to swipe his tablet or phone past the minion.

If you’re looking for an interesting case for your next project, this McDonald’s Minion toy seems to be pretty popular. PS/2 keyboards are apparently still everywhere, too, despite their obsolescence due to USB. But there are lots of other ways to get more use out of those, too.

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Snake On A BBC Micro:bit

The first of the BBC Micro Bits are slowly making their ways into hacker circulation, as is to be expected for any inexpensive educational gadget (see: Raspberry Pi). [Martin] was able to get his hands on one and created the “hello world” of LED displays: he created a playable game of snake that runs on this tiny board.

For those new to the scene, the Micro Bit is the latest in embedded ARM systems. It has a 23-pin connector for inputs and outputs, it has Bluetooth and USB connectivity, a wealth of sensors, and a 25-LED display. That’s small for a full display but it’s more than enough for [Martin]’s game of snake. He was able to create a hex file using the upyed tool from [ntoll] and upload it to the Micro Bit. Once he worked out all the kinks he went an additional step further and ported the game to Minecraft and the Raspberry Pi Sense HAT.

[Martin] has made all of the code available if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on one of these. Right now it seems that they are mostly in the hands of some UK teachers and students, but it’s only a matter of time before they become as ubiquitous as the Raspberry Pi or the original BBC Micro.  It already runs python, so the sky’s the limit on these new boards.

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