Fail Of The Week: Machining Bismuth

[David Cook]’s summary below the write-up of his experiences working with a bismuth ingot is succinct.

I wasted a weekend learning why elemental bismuth is not commonly used for metal parts.

It’s a fair assessment of his time spent growing unspectacular bismuth crystals, casting a bismuth cylinder that cracked, and machining bismuth only to be left with a very rough finish. But even though he admits the exercise was unsuccessful, he does provide us with a fascinating look at the physical properties of the element.

This is what [David] wanted to make. Alchemist-hp + Richard Bartz with focus stack. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
This is what [David] wanted to make. Alchemist-hp + Richard Bartz with focus stack. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Bismuth is one of those elements you pass by in your school chemistry lessons, it has applications in machining alloys and as a lead replacement but most of us have never knowingly encountered it in the real world. It’s one of the heavy metals, below antimony and to the right of lead on the Periodic Table. Curious schoolchildren may have heard that like water it expands on solidifying or that it is diamagnetic, and most of us have probably seen spectacular pictures of its crystals coated in colourful iridescent oxides.

It was a Hackaday story about these crystals that attracted [David] to the metal. It has a low enough melting point – 271.5 °C – that it can be liquified on a domestic stove, so mindful of his marital harmony should he destroy any kitchen appliances he bought a cheap electric ring from Amazon to go with his bismuth ingot. and set to work.

His first discovery was that cheap electric rings outdoors aren’t very effective metallurgy furnaces. Relocating to the kitchen and risking spousal wrath, he did eventually melt his bismuth and pick off the top layer once it had resolidified, to reveal some crystals.

These are the bismuth crystals he made.
These are the bismuth crystals he made.

Unfortunately for him, instead of spectacular colors and huge crystals, the sight that greeted him was one of little brilliance. Small grey crystals with no iridescence. It seems the beautiful samples are made by a very slow cooling of the liquid bismuth, followed by a quick pouring off of the remaining molten metal. Future efforts, he assures us, will involve sand-insulated molds and careful temperature monitoring.

Undeterred, he continued with his stock of bismuth and embarked on the creation of a cylinder. Early efforts with a clay mold resulted in cracked cylinders, so in desperation he cast the entirety of the metal in an aluminium baking tray and cut the resulting ingot to a rough piece of stock for turning.

Poor finish on machined bismuth.
Poor finish on machined bismuth.

With the bismuth in the lathe, he then came face to face with what he alluded to in his conclusion above, why machined bismuth parts aren’t something you’ll encounter. His cylinder came out with significantly rough patches on the surface, because bismuth is both crystalline and brittle. He suggests improvements could be made if the metal could be solidified with fewer crystals, but it’s obvious that elemental bismuth on its own is not a winner in the turning stakes.

We suggest you take a look at [David]’s write-up. It may be presented as a Fail of The Week here, but in fact it’s more of a succession of experiments that didn’t work than an unmitigated disaster. The result is an interesting and well-documented read that we’re sure most Hackaday readers will gain something from.

Aside from the bismuth crystals linked to above, we’ve featured bismuth a few times here at Hackaday. A low-temperature soldering process used it in an alloy, and we’ve even featured someone using it in another alloy to print using a RepRap.

Thanks [nebk] for the tip.

Fail Of The Week: How NOT To Smooth A 3D Print

Many of the Fail Of The Week stories we feature here are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. At worse, gears are ground, bits are broken, or the Magic Blue Smoke is released. This attempt to smooth a 3D print released far more than a puff of blue smoke, and was nearly a disaster of insurance adjuster or medical examiner proportions.

Luckily, [Maxloader] and his wife escaped serious injury, and their house came out mostly unscathed. The misadventure started with a 3D printed Mario statue. [Maxloader] had read acetone vapor can smooth a 3D print, and that warming the acetone speeds the process. Fortunately, his wife saw the looming danger and wisely suggested keeping a fire blanket handy, because [Max] decided to speed the process even more by putting a lid on the pot. It’s not clear exactly what happened in the pot – did the trapped acetone vapors burp the lid off and find a path to the cooktop burner? Whatever it was, the results were pretty spectacular and were captured on a security camera. The action starts at 1:13 in the video below. The fire blanket came in handy, buying [Max] a few seconds to open the window and send the whole flaming mess outside. Crisis averted, except for nearly setting the yard on fire.

What are we to learn from [Maxloader]’s nearly epic fail? First, acetone and open flame do not mix. If you want to heat acetone, do it outside and use an electric heat source. Second, a fire extinguisher is standard household equipment. Every house needs at least one, and doubly so when there’s a 3D printer present. And third, it’s best to know your filaments – the dearly departed Mario print was in PLA, which is best smoothed with tetrahydrofuran, not acetone.

Anything else? Feel free to flame away in the comments.

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Fail Of The Week: The Pitfalls Of Designing A Wideband Radio

If you are someone whose interests lie in the field of RF, you won’t need telling about the endless field of new possibilities opened up by the advent of affordable software defined radio technology. If you are a designer or constructor it might be tempting to believe that these radios could reduce some of the problems facing an RF design engineer. After all, that tricky signal processing work has been moved into code, so the RF engineer’s only remaining job should be to fill the not-so-huge gap between antenna and ADC or DAC.

In some cases this is true. If you are designing an SDR front end for a relatively narrow band of frequencies, perhaps a single frequency allocation such as an amateur band, the challenges are largely the same as those you’d find in the front end of a traditional radio. The simplest SDRs are thus well within the abilities of a home constructor, for example converting a below-100kHz-wide segment of radio spectrum to the below-100kHz baseband audio bandwidth of a decent quality computer sound card which serves as both ADC and DAC. You will only need to design one set of not-very-wide filters, and the integrated circuits you’ll use will not be particularly exotic.

But what happens if the SDR you are designing is not a simple narrow-band device? [Chris Testa, KD2BMH] delivered a talk at this year’s Dayton Hamvention looking at some of the mistakes he made and pitfalls he encountered over the last few years of work on his 50MHz to 1GHz-bandwidth Whitebox handheld SDR project. It’s not a FoTW in the traditional sense in that it is not a single ignominious fail, instead it is a candid and fascinating examination of so many of the wrong turnings a would-be RF engineer can make.

The video of his talk can be found below the break, courtesy of Ham Radio Now. [Chris]’s talk is part of a longer presentation after [Bruce Perens, K6BP] who some of you may recognise from his activities when he’s not talking about digital voice and SDRs. We’re jumping in at about the 34 minute mark to catch [Chris], but [Bruce]’s talk is almost worth an article in itself..

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Fail of the Week: Magnetic Flow Measurement Gone Wrong

Physics gives us the basic tools needed to understand the universe, but turning theory into something useful is how engineers make their living. Pushing on that boundary is the subject of this week’s Fail of the Week, wherein we follow the travails of making a working magnetic flowmeter (YouTube, embedded below).

Theory suggests that measuring fluid flow should be simple. After all, sticking a magnetic paddle wheel into a fluid stream and counting pulses with a reed switch or Hall sensor is pretty straightforward, right? In this case, though, [Grady] of Practical Engineering starts out with a much more complicated flow measurement modality – electromagnetic detection. He does a great job of explaining Faraday’s Law of Induction and how a fluid can be the conductor that moves through a magnetic field and has a measurable current induced in it. The current should be proportional to the velocity of the fluid, so it should be a snap to whip up a homebrew magnetic flowmeter, right? Nope – despite valiant effort, [Grady] was never able to get a usable signal out of the noise in his system. 

The theory is sound, his test rig looks workable, and he’s got some pretty decent instrumentation. So where did [Grady] go wrong? Could he clean up the signal with a better instrumentation amp? What would happen if he changed the process fluid to something more conductive, like salt water? By his own admission, electrical engineering is not his strong suit – he’s a civil engineer by trade. Think you can clean up that signal? Let us know in the comments section. 

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Fail of the Week: Ferrofluid

It’s more of a half-fail than a full fail, but [Basti] is accustomed to getting things right (eventually) so it sticks in his craw that he wasn’t able to fully realize his ferrofluid dreams (German, translated here). Anyway, fail or demi-fail, the project is certainly a lesson in the reality of ferrofluid.


We’ve all seen amazing things done with ferrofluid and magnets. How hard can it be to make an interactive ferrofluid wedding present for his sister? Where ferrofluid spikes climb up a beautifully cut steel heart in a jar? (Answer: very hard.)

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Fail Of The Week: How Not To Build Your Own Motorcycle

There’s a saying among writers that goes something like “Everyone has a novel in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay”. Its source is the subject of some dispute, but it remains sage advice that wannabe authors should remember on dark and stormy nights.

It is possible that a similar saying could be constructed among hackers and makers: that every one of us has at least one motor vehicle within, held back only by the lack of available time, budget, and workshop space. And like the writers, within is probably where most of them should stay.

[TheFrostyman] might have had cause to heed such advice. For blessed with a workshop, a hundred dollars, and the free time of a 15-year-old, he’s built his first motorcycle. It’s a machine of which he seems inordinately proud, a hardtail with a stance somewhere closer to a café racer and powered by what looks like a clone of the ubiquitous Honda 50 engine.

Unfortunately for him, though the machine looks about as cool a ride as any 15-year-old could hope to own it could also serve as a textbook example of how not to build a safe motorcycle. In fact, we’d go further than that, it’s a deathtrap that we hope he takes a second look at and never ever rides. It’s worth running through some of its deficiencies not for a laugh at his expense but to gain some understanding of motorcycle design.

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Fail Of The Week (in 1996): The 7 Billion Dollar Overflow

The year was 1996, the European Space agency was poised for commercial supremacy in space. Their new Ariane 5 Rocket could launch two three-ton satellites into space. It had more power than anything that had come before.

The rocket rose up towards the heavens on a pillar of flame, carrying four very expensive and very uninsured satellites. Thirty-seven seconds later it self destructed. Seven billion dollars of RUD rained down on the local beaches near the Guiana Space Centre in Southern South America. A video of the failed launch is after the break.

The cause of all this was a single improper type cast in a bit of code that wasn’t even supposed to run during the actual launch. Talk about a fail.

There were two bits of code. One that measured the sideways velocity, and one that used it in the guidance system. The measurement side used a 64 bit variable, but the guidance side used a 16 bit variable. The code was borrowed from an earlier, slower rocket whose velocity would never grow large enough to exceed that 16 bits. The Ariane 5, however, could be described with a Daft Punk song, and quickly overflowed this value.

The code that caused the overflow was actually a bit of pre-launch software that aligned the rocket. It was supposed to be turned off before the rocket firing, but since the rocket launch got delayed so often, the engineers made it timeout 40 seconds into the launch so they didn’t have to keep restarting it.

The ESA never placed blame on a single contractor. The programmers had made assumptions. The engineers had made reasonable shortcuts to make their job easier. It had all made it through inspections, approvals, and finally the launch event.

They certainly learned from the event; the Ariane 5 rocket has flown 82 out of 86 missions successfully since then. It has at least five more launches contracted before it is retired in 2023 for the Ariane 6 rocket being developed now. This event also changed the way critical software and redundant systems were tested, bringing the dangers of code failure to the attention of the public for the first time.

If you want to read more, there is a great discussion on Reddit which tipped us off to this fail, a quite thorough Wikipedia article, and the original article that ran in the New York Times is mirrored here.

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