New Part Day: Memristors

For the last few years, the people in the know have been wondering about the memristor. The simplest explanation of what a memristor is comes from the name itself – it’s a memory resistor. In practice it’s a little more complex, but this basic understanding is enough to convey the fact that it’s a resistor that changes its resistance based on how much current has gone through it. The memristor was first described in the 70s by [Leon Chua], the idea sat in journals for nearly forty years, and in 2008 a working memristor was created by HP Labs.

Now you can buy one. Actually, you can buy eight in a 16-pin DIP package. It will, reportedly, cost $240 for the 16-pin DIP. That’s only $30 per memristor, and it’s the first time you can buy them.

These memristors are based on a silver chalcogenide (Ge2Se3). When a circuit ‘writes’ to this memristor and applies a positive voltage, silver ion migrate to the chalcogenide, forming what the datasheet (PDF) calls dendrites. This lowers the resistance of the memristor. When a negative voltage is applied to the device, these dendrites are removed, the memristor is ‘erased’, and the memristor returns to a high-resistance state.

This silver chalcogenide memristor is different from the titanium oxide memristors developed by HP Labs that is most frequently cited when it comes to this forgotten circuit element. This work is from [Kristy Campbell] of Boise State University. She’s been working on it for more than a decade now, with IEEE publications, conference proceedings (that one’s full text), and dozens of patents.

As far as applications for memristors go, there are generally two schools of thought on that. The most interesting, in terms of current computer technology, is storage. Memristors can hold either a binary 0 or a 1 in a fraction of the space NAND Flash or old-fashioned magnetic hard drives ever will. That means greater storage density, and bigger capacity hard drives with lower power requirements. These memristors have a limit of how many times they can be cycled – ‘greater than 2000 times’ according to the datasheet. That’s nearly an order of magnitude less than MLC Flash, and something wear leveling can’t reasonably compensate for. This is a new technology, though, so that could change.

The second major expected use for memristors is neural nets. Neural nets are just a series of inputs, a few neurons, outputs, and connections between all three. These connections are weighted, and the variable resistance of memristors puts them in a unique position to emulate in hardware at the most basic level what was once done with software and custom ASICs. The trade name for these memristors – Neuro-Bit – and the company name – Bio Inspired Technologies – give you a clue at what the intended use is.

As with all new technologies, there’s always something that is inevitably created that was never imagined by the original designers. What these new applications are is at this point just speculation. Now that anyone can buy one of these neat new chips, it’s going to be interesting to see what can be made with these parts.

Manipulating Matter In A Digital Way

On a fundamental level a computer’s processor is composed of logic gates. These gates use the presence of electricity and lack thereof to represent a binary system of ones and zeros. You say “we already know this!” But have you ever considered the idea of using something other than electricity to make binary computations? Well, a team at Stanford University has. They’re using tiny droplets of water and bar magnets to make logic gates.

Their goal is not to manipulate information or to compete with modern ‘electrical’ computers. Instead, they’re aiming to manipulate matter in a logical way. Water droplets are like little bags that can carry an assortment of other molecules making the applications far reaching. In biology for instance, information is exchanged via Action Potentials – which are electrical and chemical spikes. We have the electrical part down. This technology could lead to harnessing the chemical part as well.

Be sure to check out the video below, as they explain their “water computer” in more detail.

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A Thermometer Probe For A Hotplate, Plugging Stuff Into Random Holes

[NurdRage], YouTube’s most famous chemist with a pitch-shifted voice, is back with one of our favorite pastimes: buying cheap equipment and tools, reading poorly translated manuals, and figuring out how to do something with no instructions at all.

[NurdRage] recently picked up a magnetic stirrer and hotplate. It’s been working great so far, but it lacks a thermometer probe. [NurdRage] thought he was getting one with the hotplate when he ordered it, he just never received one. Contacting the seller didn’t elicit a response, and reading the terribly translated manual didn’t even reveal who the manufacturer was. Figuring this was a knock-off, a bit more research revealed this hotplate was a copy of a SCILOGEX hotplate. The SCILOGEX temperature probe would cost $161 USD. That’s not cool.

The temperature probe was listed in the manual as a PT1000 sensor; a platinum-based RTD with a resistance of 1000Ω at 0°C. If this assumption was correct, the pinout for the temperature probe connector can be determined by sticking a 1kΩ resistor in the connector. When the hotplate reads 0ºC, that’s the wires the temperature probe connects to.

With the proper pin connectors found, [NurdRage] picked up a PT1000 on eBay for a few dollars, grabbed a DIN-5 connector from a 20 year old keyboard, and connected everything together. The sensor was encased in a pipette, and the bundle of wires snaked down piece of vinyl tube.

For $20 in parts, [NurdRage] managed to avoid paying $161 for the real thing. It works just as good as the stock, commercial unit, and it makes for a great video. Check that out below.

Thanks [CyberDjay] for the tip.

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Gunpowder From Urine, Fighting A Gorn

[Cody] has a nice little ranch in the middle of nowhere, a rifle, and a supply of ammunition. That’s just fine for the zombie apocalypse, but he doesn’t have an infinite supply of ammo. Twenty years after Z-day, he may find himself without any way to defend himself. How to fix that problem? He needs gunpowder. How do you make that? Here’s a plastic jug.

There are three ingredients required to make gunpowder – saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur. The last two ingredients are easy enough if you have trees and a mine like [Cody], but saltpeter, the a source of nitrates, aren’t really found in nature. You can make nitrates from atmospheric nitrogen if you have enough energy, but [Cody] is going low tech for this experiment. He’s saving up his own urine in a compost pile, also called a niter bed. It’s as simple as putting a few grass clippings and straw on a plastic tarp, peeing on it for a few months, and waiting for nitrogen-fixing to do their thing.

Calcium Nitrate

[Cody] doesn’t have to wait a year for his compost pile to become saturated with nitrates. He has another compost pile that has been going for about 18 months, and this is good enough for an experiment in extracting calcium nitrate. After soaking and straining this bit of compost, [Cody] is left with a solution of something that has calcium nitrate in it. This is converted to potassium nitrate – or saltpeter – by running it through wood ash. After drying out this mess of liquid, [Cody] is left with something that burns with the addition of a little carbon.

With a source of saltpeter, [Cody] only needs charcoal and sulfur to make gunpowder. Charcoal is easy enough to source, and [Cody] has a mine with lead sulfide. He can’t quite extract sulfur from his ore, so instead he goes with another catalyst – red iron oxide, or rust.

The three ingredients are combined, and [Cody] decides it’s time for a test. He has a homebuilt musket, or a piece of pipe welded at one end with a touch hole, and has a big lead ball. With his homebrew gunpowder, this musket actually works. The lead ball doesn’t fly very far, but it’s enough to put a dent in a zombie or deer; not bad for something made out of compost.

Historically, this is a pretty odd way of making gunpowder. For most of history, people with guns have also had a source of saltpeter. During the Napoleonic Wars, however, France could not import gunpowder or saltpeter and took to collecting urine from soldiers and livestock. This source of nitrates was collected, converted from calcium nitrate to potassium nitrate, and combined with charcoal and sulfur to field armies.

Still, [Cody] has a great example of what can be done using traditional methods, and the fact that he can fire a ball down a barrel is proof enough that the niter bed he’s peeing in will produce even better gunpowder.

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Pump Up the Volume with the 3D Printed Syringe Pump Rack

Syringe pumps are valuable tools when specific amounts of fluid must be dispensed at certain rates and volumes. They are used in many ways, for administering IV medications to liquid chromatography (LC/HPLC). Unfortunately, a commercial pump can cost a pretty penny. Not particularly thrilled with the hefty price tag, [Aldric Negrier] rolled up his sleeves and made a 3D-printed version for 300 USD.

[Aldric] has been featured on Hackaday before, so we knew his latest project would not disappoint. His 3D Printed Syringe Pump Rack contains five individual pumps that can operate independently of each other. Five pieces are 3D-printed to form the housing for each pump. In addition, each pump is composed of a Teflon-coated lead screw, an Arduino Nano V3, a Pololu Micro stepper motor driver, and a NEMA-17 stepper motor. The 3D Printed Syringe Pump Rack runs on a 12V power supply using a maximum of 2 amps per motor.

While the standard Arduino IDE contains the Stepper library, [Aldric] wanted a library that allowed for more precise control and went with the Accelstepper library. The 3D Printed Syringe Pump Rack has a measured accuracy of 0.5µl in a 10ml syringe, which is nothing to laugh at.

Syringe pump racks like [Aldric’s] are another great example of using open source resources and the spirit of DIY to make typically expensive technologies more affordable to the smaller lab bench. If you are interested in other open source syringe pump designs, you can check out this entry for the 2014 Hackaday Prize.

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Not Just a Floor Wax but an Embossing Powder!

The embossing process used in the creation of some of your fancier wedding invitations and business cards is an interesting one. It’s often called thermography or thermographic printing. Slow-drying, wet ink is applied to a substrate. The ink is dusted with a thermoplastic polymer called embossing powder, and a heat source raises the ink while drying it.

Commercial embossing powder costs about $10 an ounce. As [Ken] discovered, its manufacture is quite closed-source to boot. He set about creating his own embossing powder, and succeeded with a combination of commonly available floor finish and distilled white vinegar. A standard-sized bottle of floor finish yielded about four ounces of homemade embossing powder.

How does this work? The floor finish is an acrylic-based stable emulsion. Adding vinegar destabilizes the emulsion, decreasing its pH and setting the polymer free.  It’s a fairly fast process, which you can see in the second video that accompanies [Ken]’s write up. From there, it’s mostly a matter of straining the material, letting it dry, and pulverizing the coarse matter into powder. In the first video, [Ken] performs a comparison test of Ranger, a commercial powder, and his own concoction.

For a completely different take on home embossing, check out this soda-can-turned-keepsake-box.

Hackaday Prize Entry: Aspirin For Everyone

When it comes to the history of medicine and drugs, Aspirin, or more properly acetyl-salicylic acid, is one of the more interesting stories. Plants rich in salicalates were used as medicines more than four thousand years ago, and in the fourth century BC, [Hippocrates] noted a powder made from willow bark was an excellent analgesic. It was only in the 1800s that acetylated salicylic acid was first synthesized. In 1897, chemists at Bayer gave this ancient remedy a new name: Aspirin. It’s on the WHO List of Essential Medicines, but somehow millions of people don’t have access to this pill found in every pharmacy.

[M. Bindhammer] is working to make Aspirin for Everyone for his entry to the Hackaday Prize, using a small portable lab designed around chemicals that can be easily obtained.

The most common synthesis of Aspirin is salicylic acid treated with acetic anhydrate. Acetic anhydrate is used for the synthesis of heroin, and of course the availability of this heavily restricted by the DEA. Instead, [M. Bindhammer] will use a different method using salicylic acid and acetic acid. If you’re keeping track, that’s replacing a chemical on a DEA list of precursors with very strong vinegar.

[M. Bindhammer] even has a design for the lab that will produce the Aspirin, and it’s small enough to fit in a very large pocket. Everything that is needed for the production of acetyl-salicylic acid is there, including a reaction vessel with a heating element, a water/oil bath, flask, an Allihn condenser, and a vacuum filtering flask. Even if shipping millions of pills to far-flung reaches of the planet were easy, it’s still an exceptional Hackaday Prize entry.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by: