Pulsed Power and its Applications

Pulsed power is a technology that consists in accumulating energy over some period of time, then releasing it very quickly. Since power equals energy (or work) divided by time, the idea is to emit a constant amount of energy in as short a time as possible. It will only last for a fraction of a second though, but that instantaneous power has very interesting applications. With this technology, power levels of more than 300 terawatts have been obtained. Is this technology for unlimited budgets, or is this in reach of the common hacker?

Consider for example discharging a capacitor. A large 450 V, 3300 uF electrolytic capacitor discharges in about 0.1 seconds (varies a lot depending on capacitor design). Since the energy stored in it is given by 1/2 CV², which gives 334 Joules of energy, the power delivered will be 3340 watts. In fact a popular hacker project is to build large capacitor banks. Once you have the bank, and a way to charge it, you can use it to power very interesting devices such as:

A portable, 1.25 kJ coilgun by [Jason Murray]

Railguns in particular are subject to serious research. You may have read about the navy railgun, capable of reaching a muzzle speed of more than 4,600 mph (around Mach 6), more than any other explosive-powered gun. Power is provided by a 9-megajoule capacitor bank. The capacitors discharge on two conducting rails, generating an electromagnetic field that fires the projectile along the rails. The rail wear due to the tremendous pressures and currents, in the millions of amperes range, is still a problem to be solved.

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Why the Wright Brothers Succeeded

The types of steps and missteps the Wright brothers took in developing the first practical airplane should be familiar to hackers. They started with a simple kite design and painstakingly added only a few features at a time, testing each, and discarding some. The airfoil data they had was wrong and they had to make their own wind tunnel to produce their own data. Unable to find motor manufacturers willing to do a one-off to their specifications, they had to make their own.

Sound familiar? Here’s a trip through the Wright brothers development of the first practical airplane.

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Anatomy Of A Digital Broadcast Radio System

What does a Hackaday writer do when a couple of days after Christmas she’s having a beer or two with a long-term friend from her university days who’s made a career in the technical side of digital broadcasting? Pick his brains about the transmission scheme and write it all down of course, for behind the consumer’s shiny digital radio lies a wealth of interesting technology to try to squeeze the most from the available resources.

In the UK, our digital broadcast radio uses a system called DAB, for Digital Audio Broadcasting. There are a variety of standards used around the world for digital radio, and it’s fair to say that DAB as one of the older ones is not necessarily the best in today’s marketplace. This aside there is still a lot to be learned from its transmission scheme, and from how some of its shortcomings were addressed in later standards. Continue reading “Anatomy Of A Digital Broadcast Radio System”

Did a Russian Physicist Invent Radio?

It is said that “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.” Given the world-changing success of radio in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s no wonder that so many scientists, physicists, and engineers have been credited with its invention. The fact that electromagnetic radiation is a natural phenomenon that no one can reasonably claim to have invented sometimes seems lost in the shuffle to claim the prize.

But it was exactly through the study of natural phenomena that one of the earliest pioneers in radio research came to have a reasonable claim to at least be the inventor of the radio receiver, well before anyone had learned how to reliably produce electromagnetic waves. This is the story of how a Russian physicist harnessed the power of lightning and became one of the many fathers of radio.

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Explosions that Save Lives

Normally, when something explodes it tends to be a bad day for all involved. But not every explosion is intended to maim or kill. Plenty of explosions are designed to save lives every day, from the highway to the cockpit to the power grid. Let’s look at some of these pyrotechnic wonders and how they keep us safe.

Explosive Bolts

The first I can recall hearing the term explosive bolts was in relation to the saturation TV coverage of the Apollo launches in the late 60s and early 70s. Explosive bolts seemed to be everywhere, releasing umbilicals and restraining the Saturn V launch stack on the pad. Young me pictured literal bolts machined from solid blocks of explosive and secretly hoped there was a section for them in the hardware store so I could have a little fun.

Pyrotechnic fasteners are mechanical fasteners (bolts, studs, nuts, etc.) that are designed to fail in a predictable fashion due to the detonation of an associated pyrotechnic device. Not only must they fail predictably, but they also have to be strong enough to resist the forces they will experience before failure is initiated. Failure is also typically rapid and clean, meaning that no debris is left to interfere with the parts that were previously held together by the fastener. And finally, the explosive failure can’t cause any collateral damage to the fastened parts or nearby structures.

Explosive bolt. Source: Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense
Explosive bolt. Source: Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense

Pyrotechnic fasteners fall into two broad categories. Explosive bolts look much like regular bolts, and are machined out of the same materials you’d expect to find any bolt made of. The explosive charge is usually internal to the shank of the bolt with an initiating device of some sort in the head. To ensure clean, predictable separation, there’s a groove machined into the bolt to create a shear plane.

Frangible nut and booster, post-use. Source: Space Junkie's Space Junk
Frangible nut and booster, post-use. Source: Space Junkie’s Space Junk

Frangible nuts are another type of pyrotechnic fastener. These tend to be used for larger load applications, like holding down rockets. Frangible nuts usually have two smaller threaded holes adjacent to the main fastener thread; pyrotechnic booster charges split the nut across the plane formed by the threaded holes to release the fastener cleanly.

“Eject! Eject! Eject!”

Holding back missiles is one thing, but where pyrotechnic fasteners save the most lives might be in the cockpits of fighter jets around the world. When things go wrong in a fighter, pilots need to get out in a hurry. Strapping into a fighter cockpit is literally sitting on top of a rocket and being surrounded by explosives. Most current seats are zero-zero designs — usable at zero airspeed and zero altitude — that propel the seat and pilot out of the aircraft on a small rocket high enough that the parachute can deploy before the pilot hits the surface. Dozens of explosive charges take care of ripping the aircraft canopy apart, deploying the chute, and cutting the seat free from the parachuting pilot, typically unconscious and a couple of inches shorter from spinal disc compression after his one second rocket ride.

Behind the Wheel

There’s little doubt that airbags have saved countless lives since they’ve become standard equipment in cars and trucks. When you get into a modern vehicle, you are literally surrounded by airbags — steering wheel, dashboard, knee bolsters, side curtains, seatbelt bags, and even the rear seat passenger bags. And each one of these devices is a small bomb waiting to explode to save your life.

When we think of explosives we tend to think of substances that can undergo rapid oxidation with subsequent expansion of hot gasses. By this definition, airbag inflators aren’t really explosives, since they are powered by the rapid chemical decomposition of nitrogenous compounds, commonly sodium azide in the presence of potassium nitrate and silicon dioxide. But the difference is purely academic; anyone who has ever had an airbag deploy in front of them or watched any of the “hold my beer and watch this” airbag prank video compilations will attest to the explosive power held in that disc of chemicals.

When a collision is detected by sensors connected to the airbag control unit (ACU), current is applied to an electric match, similar to the engine igniters used in model rocketry, buried within the inflator module. The match reaches 300°C within a few milliseconds, causing the sodium azide to rapidly decompose into nitrogen gas and sodium. Subsequent reactions mop up the reactive byproducts to produce inert silicate glasses and add a little more nitrogen to the mix. The entire reaction is complete in about 40 milliseconds, and the airbags inflate fully within 80 milliseconds, only to deflate again almost instantly through vent holes in the back of the bag. By the time you perceive that you were in an accident, the bag hangs limply from the steering wheel and with any luck, you get to walk away from the accident.

Grid Down

We’ve covered a little about utility poles and all the fascinating bits of gear that hang off them. One of the pieces of safety gear that lives in the “supply space” at the top of the poles is the fuse cutout, or explosive disconnector. This too is a place where a small explosion can save lives — not only by protecting line workers but also by preventing a short circuit from causing a fire.

Cutouts are more than just fuses, though. Given the nature of the AC transmission and distribution grid, the lines that cutouts protect are at pretty high voltages of 11 kV or more. That much voltage means the potential for sustained arcing if contacts aren’t rapidly separated; the resulting plasma can do just as much if not more damage than the short circuit. So a small explosive cartridge is used to rapidly kick the fuse body of a cutout out of the frame and break the circuit as quickly as possible. Arc suppression features are also built into the cutout to interrupt the arc before it gets a chance to form.

[Big Clive] recently did a teardown of another piece of line safety gear, an 11 kV lightning arrestor with an explosive disconnector. With a Dremel tool and a good dose of liquid courage, he liberated a carbon slug from within the disconnector, which when heated by a line fault ignites a .22 caliber charge similar to those used with powder actuated fastener tools. The rapid expansion of gasses ruptures the cases of the disconnector and rapidly breaks the circuit.


We’ve covered a few of the many ways that the power of expanding gas can be used in life safety applications. There are other ways, too — snuffing out oil field fires comes to mind, as does controlled demolition of buildings. But the number of explosives protecting us from more common accidents is quite amazing, all the more so when you realize how well engineered they are. After all, these everyday bombs aren’t generally blowing up without good reason.

Hands On With The First Open Source Microcontroller

2016 was a great year for Open Hardware. The Open Source Hardware Association released their certification program, and late in the year, a few silicon wizards met in Mountain View to show off the latest happenings in the RISC-V instruction set architecture.

The RISC-V ISA is completely unlike any other computer architecture. Nearly every other chip you’ll find out there, from the 8051s in embedded controllers, 6502s found in millions of toys, to AVR, PIC, and whatever Intel is working on are closed-source designs. You cannot study these chips, you cannot manufacture these chips, and if you want to use one of these chips, your list of suppliers is dependent on who has a licensing agreement with who.

We’ve seen a lot of RISC-V stuff in recent months, from OnChip’s Open-V, and now the HiFive 1 from SiFive. The folks at SiFive offered to give me a look at the HiFive 1, so here it is, the first hands-on with the first Open Hardware microcontroller.

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Toshiro Kodera: Electromagnetic Gyrotropes

We’ve learned a lot by watching the talks from the Hackaday Superconferences. Still, it’s a rare occurrence to learn something totally new. Microwave engineer, professor, and mad hacker [Toshiro Kodera] gave a talk on some current research that he’s doing: replacing natural magnetic gyrotropic material with engineered metamaterials in order to make two-way beam steering antennas and more.

If you already fully understood that last sentence, you may not learn as much from [Toshiro]’s talk as we did. If you’re at all interested in strange radio-frequency phenomena, neat material properties, or are just curious, don your physics wizard’s hat and watch his presentation. Just below the video, we’ll attempt to give you the Cliff’s Notes.

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