Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: Water Quality Monitoring

The theme of this year’s Hackaday Prize is to build something that matters, and there is nothing more important than water quality and pollution. Everything we eat and drink is influenced by the water quality in rivers and reservoirs. C4Derpillar, a semifinalist for the Hackaday Prize, is solving the problems of water-related health issues with innovative sensors for under $500 USD per unit.

The C4Derpiller is using capillary electrophoresis (CE) to detect anions and cations in waterways. CE pulls a water sample through a very thin tube with an electric current. As water is moving through this capillary, a sensor is able to detect heavy metals, pesticides, and other pollutants in a water supply. The team behind C4Derpiller has written a few posts about the separation chemistry of their device

Commercial CE equipment costs tens of thousands of dollars. The team behind the C4Derpillar are hoping to develop their pollution monitoring device and make it available for about $500 USD. That’s cheap enough for multiple pollution monitoring stations in the third world, and by pushing the results to the cloud, the C4Derpillar will be able to monitor pollution in real time.

You can check out C4Derpillar’s Hackaday Prize video below.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

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Could Solid-State Batteries Last a Lifetime?

Researchers from MIT and the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology have been developing a new material that could potentially revolutionize the battery industry. A solid electrolyte that won’t wear out, lasting exponentially longer than current battery chemistry.

It also has the possibility to increase battery life, storage, and the safety of batteries — as liquid electrolytes are the main reason batteries catch on fire.

Sound too good to be true? The idea for solid-state batteries has been around for awhile, but it sounds like MIT and Samsung may have figured it out. The current materials used for solid electrolytes have difficulty conducting ions fast enough in order to be useful — but according to the researchers, they’ve discovered formula for the secret sauce. They’ve published their findings on Nature.com, which is sadly behind a pay wall.

Another great benefit of solid-state batteries is they would be able to operate at freezing temperatures without a problem. What do you think? Is Samsung blowing smoke, or will they actually release a battery you never have to replace?

And For My Next Trick, I’ll Be Pulling Carbon Nanofibers out of Thin Air!

Scientists at the George Washington University have managed to figure out a process in which they can literally grow carbon nanofibers out of thin air, using solar power.

Not only that, they do it using carbon dioxide — you know, that gas that contributes heavily to climate change? Using two electrodes, they pump power into a mixture of molten salt; lithium carbonate and lithium oxide. Then, carbon dioxide from the air reacts with the lithium oxide, producing carbon nanofibers — with more lithium carbonate and oxygen as byproducts.

The carbon nanofibers can then be used for a wide range of products or further processes. But beyond getting a useful material out of it, getting rid of carbon dioxide, if done on a large scale, could be beneficial for climate change. Unfortunately, they haven’t figured out how to do that just yet…

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Metal 3D Printing with Your Printer

Over in Italy, [Robotfactory] has a new setup called CopperFace that they claim allows you to essentially electroplate 3D printed objects with a metal coating using copper, nickel, silver, or gold.

We’ve talked about electroplating on plastic before, but that technique required mixing graphite and acetone. The CopperFace kit uses a conductive graphite spray and claims it deposits about 1 micron of plating on the object every two minutes.

We couldn’t help but wonder if the graphite spray is just the normal stuff used for lubricant. While the CopperFace’s electroplating tech seems pretty standard (copper sulfate and copper/phosphorus electrodes), we also wondered if some of the simpler copper acetate process we’ve covered before might be workable.

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Growing Copper and Silver Crystals for Art

Usually when Hackaday covers electroplating techniques, it’s to talk about through-hole PCB plating. But did you know you can use the same method to produce beautiful copper and silver crystal structures?

[Fred and Connie Libby] are kind enough to share how they make their crystals that they sell in tiny glass vials you can wear around your neck. The process is simple as you would think; it’s just an electrolyte solution, with a current passing through it, depositing the metal in an ion-exchange. Rather then stop once the part is sufficiently covered, you let the process run amok, and soon large crystal formations begin to emerge. [Fred and Connie] share their technique very briefly, so if you’re looking for a more detailed how-to guide, you can find one here.

Although silver crystals are a bit out of our budget, we wonder how large of a copper crystal could be grown? Large enough to be displayed on a coffee table? Surely such a work of art and science could be an interesting conservation piece in any hacker’s home.

Simple, Cheap Nitrate Tester is Open Source

Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and nitrate pollution due to agricultural fertilizer runoff is a major problem for both lakes and coastal waters. Assessing nitrate levels commercially is an expensive process that uses proprietary instruments and toxic reagents such as cadmium. But [Joshua Pearce] has recently developed an open-source photometer for nitrate field measurement that uses an enzyme from spinach and costs a mere $65USD to build.

The device itself is incredibly simple – a 3D printed enclosure houses an LED light source and a light sensor. The sample to be tested is mixed with a commercially available reagent kit based on the enzyme nitrate reductase, resulting in a characteristic color change proportional to the amount of nitrate present. The instrument reads the amount of light absorbed by the sample, and communicates the results to an Android device over a Bluetooth link.

Open-source instruments like this can really open up educational opportunities for STEM groups to get out into the real world and start making measurements that can make a difference. Not only can this enable citizen scientists and activists, but it also opens the door for getting farmers involved in controlling nitrate pollution at its source – knowing when a field has been fertilized enough can save a farmer unnecessary expense and reduce nitrate runoff.

There are a lot of other ways to put an open-source instrument like this to use in biohacking – photometery is a very common measuring modality in the life sciences, after all. We’ve seen similar instruments before, like a DIY spectrophotometer, or this 2015 Hackaday Prize entry medical tricorder with a built-in spectrophotometer. Still, for simplicity of build and potential impact, it’s hard to beat this instrument.

Building a Battery from Molten Salt

During World War II a scientist named Georg Otto Erb developed the molten salt battery for use in military applications. The war ended before Erb’s batteries found any real use, but British Intelligence wrote a report about the technology and the United States adopted the technology for artillery fuses.

Molten salt batteries have two main advantages. First, you can store them for a long time (50 years or more) with no problems. Once the salt melts (usually from a pyrotechnic charge), the battery can produce a lot of energy for a relatively short period of time thanks to the high ionic conductivity of the electrolyte (about three times that of sulfuric acid).

[OrbitalDesigns] couldn’t find a DIY version of a molten salt battery so he decided to make one himself. Although he didn’t get the amount of power you’d find in a commercial design, it did provide 1.6V and enough power to light an LED.

The electrolyte was a mixture of potassium chloride and lithium chloride and melts at about 350 to 400 degrees Celsius. He used nickel and magnesium for electrodes. Potassium chloride is used as a salt substitute, so it isn’t dangerous to handle (at least, no more dangerous than anything else heated to 400 degrees Celsius). The lithium compound, however, is slightly toxic (even though it was briefly sold as a salt substitute, also). If you try to replicate the battery, be sure you read the MSDS for all the materials.

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