Evolving our Ideas to Build Something That Matters

When Jeffrey Brian “JB” Straubel built his first electric car in 2000, a modified 1984 Porsche 944, powered by two beefy DC motors, he did it mostly for fun and out of his own curiosity for power electronics. At that time, “EV” was already a hype among tinkerers and makers, but Straubel certainly pushed the concept to the limit. He designed his own charger, motor controller, and cooling system, capable of an estimated 288 kW (368 hp) peak power output. 20 lead-acid batteries were connected in series to power the 240 V drive train. With a 30-40 mile range the build was not only road capable but also set a world record for EV drag racing.

jb-straubel-porsche
The “Electric Porsche 944” – by JB Straubel

The project was never meant to change the world, but with Tesla Motors, which Straubel co-founded only a few years later, the old Porsche 944 may have mattered way more than originally intended. The explosive growth between 2000 and 2010 in the laptop computer market has brought forth performance and affordable energy storage technology and made it available to other applications, such as traction batteries. However, why did energy storage have to take the detour through a bazillion laptop computers until it arrived at electro mobility?

 

You certainly won’t find that grail of engineering by just trying hard. Rather than feverishly hunting down the next big thing or that fix for the world’s big problems, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that even a small improvement, a new approach or just a fun build may be just the right ‘next step’. We may eventually build all the things and solve all the problems, but looking at the past, we tend to not do so by force. We are much better at evolving our ideas continuously over time. And each step on the way still matters. Let’s dig a bit deeper into this concept and see where it takes us.

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Belgrade Experience: MikroElektronika, Museums, and FPGA Computing

I recently had the chance to visit Belgrade and take part in the Hackaday | Belgrade conference. Whenever I travel, I like to make some extra field trips to explore the area. This Serbian trip included a tour of electronics manufacturing, some excellent museums, and a startup that is weaving FPGAs into servers and PCIe cards.

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Pillaging the Wealth of Information in a Datasheet

It’s a fair assumption that the majority of Hackaday readers will be used to working with electronic components, they are the life blood of so many of the projects featured here. In a lot of cases those projects will feature very common components, those which have become commoditized through appearing across an enormous breadth of applications. We become familiar with those components through repeated use, and we build on that familiarity when we create our own circuits using them.

All manufacturers of electronic components will publish a datasheet for those components. A document containing all the pertinent information for a designer, including numerical parameters, graphs showing their characteristics, physical and thermal parameters, and some application information where needed. Back in the day they would be published as big thick books containing for example the sheets for all the components of a particular type from a manufacturer, but now they are available very conveniently online in PDF format from manufacturer or wholesaler websites.

A 2N3904 in a TO92 through-hole package
A 2N3904 in a TO92 through-hole package

Datasheets are a mine of information on the components they describe, but sometimes they can be rather impenetrable. There is a lot of information to be presented, indeed when the device in question is a highly integrated component such as a DSP or microprocessor the datasheet can resemble a medium-sized book. We’re sure that a lot of our readers will be completely at home in the pages of a datasheet, but equally it’s a concern that a section of the Hackaday audience will not be so familiar with them and will not receive their full benefit. Thus we’re going to examine and explain a datasheet in detail, and hopefully shed some light on what it contains.

The device whose datasheet we’ve chosen to put under the microscope is a transistor. The most basic building block of active semiconductor circuits, and the particular one we’ve chosen is a ubiquitous NPN signal transistor, the 2N3904. It’s been around for a very long time, having been introduced by Motorola in the 1960s, and has become the go-to device for a myriad circuits. You can buy 2N3904s made by a variety of manufacturers all of whom publish their own data sheets, but for the purposes of this article we’ll be using the PDF 2N3904 data sheet from ON Semiconductor, the spun-off former Motorola semiconductor division. You might find it worth your while opening this document in another window  or printing it out for reference alongside the rest of this article.

Let’s take a look at all the knowledge enshrined in this datasheet, and the engineering eye you sometimes need to assign meaning to those numbers, diagrams, and formulas.

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2016 Hackaday Prize Begins Anew and Anything Goes

Today marks the beginning of the Anything Goes challenge, a 2016 Hackaday Prize contest that will reward 20 finalists with $1000 for solving a technology problem and a chance at winning the entire Hackaday Prize: $150,000 and a residency at the Supplyframe Design Lab in Pasadena.

anythinggoes (1)The Hackaday Prize is empowering hackers, designers, and engineers to use their time to Build Something that Matters. For the next five weeks what matters is solving a technology problem. Have an idea to power vehicles without polluting the atmosphere? Great! Want to figure out how to get your washing machine to work better? We want to see that too. Anything goes so design it, prototype it, document it and you could be one of the twenty entries headed to the final round.

We have already seen a groundswell of progress in the Hackaday Prize. The first round, Design Your Concept, had over five hundred entries! But today is a brand new day, a new challenge, and all bets are off. It’s the perfect clean slate for you to join the movement.

Start your project right now and submit it to the Hackaday Prize. If you have previously started a project page you can add it to the Anything Goes challenge using the “Submit Project To” dropdown menu on the left sidebar of your project page.

Talk about your idea, document your plan for seeing it through to completion, and then start writing build logs as you begin to work on the prototype. On May 30th our panel of judges will review all the entries and choose twenty that exhibit the best the Hackaday Prize has to offer.

You have the talent. You can make the time. You will make a difference. The greatest things in the world start small but with passion. This is your moment, now start your journey.

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Hacking When it Counts: POW Canteen Radios

Of all the horrors visited upon a warrior, being captured by the enemy might count as the worst. With death in combat, the suffering is over, but with internment in a POW camp, untold agonies may await. Tales of torture, starvation, enslavement and indoctrination attend the history of every nation’s prison camps to some degree, even in the recent past with the supposedly civilizing influence of the Hague and Geneva Conventions.

But even the most humanely treated POWs universally suffer from one thing: lack of information. To not know how the war is progressing in your absence is a form of torture in itself, and POWs do whatever they can to get information. Starting in World War II, imprisoned soldiers and sailors familiar with the new field of electronics began using whatever materials they could scrounge and the abundance of time available to them to hack together solutions to the fundamental question, “How goes the war?” This is the story of the life-saving radios some POWs managed to hack together under seemingly impossible conditions.

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Are Powdered Metal Fuels Just a Flash in the Pan?

It’s no secret that fossil fuels are quickly becoming extinct. As technology charges ever forward, they are disappearing faster and faster. Many of our current dependencies on fossil fuels are associated with high-energy applications like transportation. Since it’s unlikely that global transportation will ever be in decline for any reason other than fuel shortage itself, it’s imperative that we find something that can replicate the high energy density of fossil fuels. Either that, or go back to the drawing board and change the entire scope of global transportation.

Energy, especially solar and wind, cannot be created all over the world. Traditionally, energy is created in situ and shipped to other places that need it. The proposed solutions for zero-carbon energy carriers—batteries and hydrogen—all have their weaknesses. Batteries are a fairly safe option, but their energy density is pretty poor. Hydrogen’s energy density is higher, but its flammability makes it dangerously volatile to store and transport.

Recently, a group of researchers at McGill University in Canada released a paper exploring the use of metal powders as our zero-carbon fuel of the future. Although metal powders could potentially be used as primary energy sources, the transitory solution they propose is to use them as secondary sources powered by wind and solar primaries.

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The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Cloning Open-Source Hardware

We’re great proponents (and beneficiaries) of open-source hardware here at Hackaday. It’s impossible to overstate the impact that the free sharing of ideas has had on the hacker hardware scene. Plus, if you folks didn’t write up the cool projects that you’re making, we wouldn’t have nearly as much to write about.

We also love doing it ourselves. Whether this means actually etching the PCB or just designing it ourselves and sending it off to the fab, we’re not the types to pick up our electronics at the Buy More (except when we’re planning to tear them apart). And when we don’t DIY, we like our electrons artisanal because we like to support the little guy or girl out there doing cool design work.

So it’s with a moderately heavy heart that we’ll admit that when it comes to pre-built microcontroller and sensor boards, I buy a lot of cheap clones. Some of this is price sensitivity, to be sure. If I’m making many different one-off goofy projects, it just doesn’t make sense to pay the original-manufacturer premium over and over again for each one. A $2 microcontroller board just begs to be permanently incorporated into give-away projects in a way that a $20 board doesn’t. But I’m also positively impressed by some of the innovation coming out of some of the clone firms, to the point that I’m not sure that the “clone” moniker is fair any more.

This article is an attempt to come to grips with innovation, open source hardware, and the clones. I’m going to look at these issues from three different perspectives: the firm producing the hardware, the hacker hobbyist purchasing the hardware, and the innovative hobbyist who just wants to get a cool project out to as many people as possible. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but can cloning go too far? To some extent, it depends on where you’re sitting.

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