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.

Continue reading “Building a Battery from Molten Salt”

Dissolve Steel Drill Bits in Alum from the Grocery

Breaking a stud or a bolt is a pretty common shop catastrophe, but one for which a fair number of solutions exist. Drill it out, shoot in an extractor, or if you’re lucky, clamp on some Vise-Grips and hope for the best. But when a drill bit breaks off flush in a hole, there aren’t a lot of options, especially for a small bit. If the stars align, though, you may follow this video guide to dissolve the drill bit and save the part.

Looks like [Adam Prince] lucked out with his broken bit, which he was using to drill the hole for a pin in a small custom brass hinge. It turns out that a hot solution of alum (ammonium aluminum sulfate), which is available in the spice rack of your local supermarket, will dissolve the steel drill bit without reacting with the brass. Aluminum is said to be resistant to the alum as well, but if your busted bit is buried in steel, you’re out of luck with this shop tip.

We’re a bit disappointed that [Adam]’s video ends somewhat abruptly and before showing us the end result. But a little Googling around reveals that this chemical technique is fairly well-known among a group that would frequently break bits in brass – clockmakers. It remains to be seen how well it would work for larger drill bits, but the clocksmiths seem to have had success with their tiny drills and broaches.

As for the non-dissolved remains of the broken bit, why not try your hand at knife making?

One Way to Recharge Alkaline Batteries

It says it right on the side of every alkaline battery – do not attempt to recharge. By which of course the manufacturer means don’t try to force electrons back into the cell. But [Cody] figured he could work around that safety warning chemically, by replacing the guts of an alkaline dry cell.

The batteries in question were certainly old, gnarly looking, and pretty dead – [Cody] barely got a reading on his multimeter. As you can see after the break, he cleaned off the exterior corrosion and did a quick teardown of the dry cells, removing the remains of the zinc anode, now in the form of zinc oxide paste looking very much like what you’d slather on your nose before a day at the beach. He filled the resulting cavity with a putty of zinc dust, freshened up the electrolyte charge with a squirt of 20% potassium hydroxide, sealed up the cell with a little silicone caulking, and put the recycled cell to the test. Result: 1.27 volts. Not too shabby.

Continue reading “One Way to Recharge Alkaline Batteries”

University Peristaltic Pump Has Hacker Heritage

A team at [Vanderbilt University] have been hacking together their own peristaltic pumps. Peristaltic pumps are used to deliver precise volumes of fluid for research, medical and industrial applications. They’re even occasionally used to dose fish tanks.

pumpThey work by squeezing the fluid in a flexible tube with a series of rollers (check out the awesome gif from Wikipedia to the right). We’ve seen 3D printed peristaltic pumps before, and cheap pumps have been appearing on eBay. But this build is designed to be lab grade, and while the cheap eBay devices can deliver ~20ml/min this one can deliver flow rates in the microliter/min range. It also has a significant cost advantage over commercial research grade pumps which typically cost thousands of dollars, each of these pumps costs only fifty bucks.

The pump has a clear hacker heritage, using an Arduino Uno, Adafruit Motor shield, and 3D printed mechanical parts. So it’s particularly awesome that they’ve also made their design files and Arduino code freely available!

Continue reading “University Peristaltic Pump Has Hacker Heritage”

Why Is There Liquid Nitrogen On the Street Corner?

Any NYC hackers may have noticed something a bit odd this summer while taking a walk… Giant tanks of the Liquid Nitrogen have been popping up around the city.

There are hoses that go from the tanks to manholes. They’re releasing the liquid nitrogen somewhere… Are they freezing sewer alligators? Fighting the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Or perhaps, cooling our phone lines??

Luckily, we now have an answer. Popular Science writer [Rebecca Harrington] got to investigate it as part of her job. As it turns out, the liquid nitrogen is being used to pressurize the cables carrying our precious phone and internet service in NYC. The cables have a protective sheath covering them, but during construction and repairs, the steam build up in some of the sewers can be too much for them — so they use liquid nitrogen expanding into gas to supplement the pressurized cables in order to keep the them dry. As the liquid nitrogen boils away, it expands 175 times which helps keep moisture out of the cables.

Continue reading “Why Is There Liquid Nitrogen On the Street Corner?”

Home Brew Supercapacitor Whipped Up In The Kitchen

[Taavi] has a problem – a wonky alarm clock is causing him to repeatedly miss his chemistry class. His solution? Outfit his clock radio with a supercapacitor, of course! But not just any supercapacitor – a home-brew 400 Farad supercap in a Tic Tac container (YouTube video in Estonian with English subtitles.)

[Taavi] turns out to be quite a resourceful lad with his build. A bit of hardware cloth and some stainless steel from a scouring pad form a support for the porous carbon electrode, made by mixing crushed activated charcoal with epoxy and squeezing them in a field-expedient press. We’ll bet his roommates weren’t too keen with the way he harvested materials for the press from the kitchen table, nor were they likely thrilled with what he did to the coffee grinder, but science isn’t about the “why?”; it’s about the “why not?” Electrodes are sandwiched with a dielectric made from polypropylene shade cloth, squeezed into a Tic Tac container, and filled with drain cleaner for the electrolyte. A quick bit of charging circuitry, and [Taavi] doesn’t have to sweat that tardy slip anymore.

The video is part of a series of 111 chemistry lessons developed by the chemistry faculty of the University of Tartu in Estonia. The list of experiments is impressive, and a lot of the teaser stills show impressively exothermic reactions, like the reduction of lead oxide with aluminum to get metallic lead or what happens when rubidium and water get together. Some of this is serious “do not try this at home” stuff, but there’s no denying the appeal of watching stuff blow up.

As for [Taavi]’s supercap, we’ve seen a few applications for them before, like this hybrid scooter. [Taavi] may also want to earn points for Tic Tac hacks by pairing his supercapacitor with this Tic Tac clock.

[Thanks, Lloyd!]