Ask Hackaday: The Many Uses of Microwaves

When most think of a microwave, they think of that little magic box that you can heat food in really fast. An entire industry of frozen foods has sprung up from the invention of the household microwave oven, and it would be difficult to find a household without one. You might be surprised that microwave ovens, or reactors to be more accurate, can also be found in chemistry labs and industrial complexes throughout the world. They are used in organic synthesis – many equipped with devices to monitor the pressure and temperature while heating. Most people probably don’t know that most food production facilities use microwave-based moisture solids analyzers. And there’s even an industry that uses microwaves with acids to dissolve or digest samples quickly. In this article, we’re going to look beyond the typical magnetron / HV power supply / electronics and instead focus on some other peculiarities of microwave reactors than you might not know.

Single vs Multimode

The typical microwave oven in the millions of households across the world is known as multimode type. In these, the microwaves will take on typical wavelike behavior like we learned about in physics 101. They will develop constructive and destructive interference patterns, causing ‘hot spots’ in the cavity. A reader tipped us off to this example, where [Lenore] uses a popular Indian snack food to observe radiation distribution in a multimode microwave cavity. Because of this, you need some type of turntable to move the food around the cavity to help even out the cooking. You can avoid the use of a turn table with what is known as a mode stirrer. This is basically a metal ‘fan’ that helps to spread the microwaves throughout the cavity. They can often be found in industrial microwaves. Next time you’re in the 7-11, take a look in the top of the cavity, and you will likely see one.

Multimode microwaves also require an isolator to protect the magnetron from reflected energy. These work like a diode, and do not let any microwaves bounce back and hit the magnetron. It absorbs the reflected energy and turns it into heat. It’s important to note that all microwave energy must be absorbed in a multimode cavity. What is not absorbed by the food will be absorbed by the isolator. Eventually, all isolators will fail from the heat stress. Think about that next time you’re nuking a small amount of food with a thousand watts!

Single Mode microwaves are what you will find in chemistry and research labs. In these, the cavity is tuned to the frequency of the magnetron – 2.45GHz. This allows for a uniform microwave field. There is no interference, and therefore no hot or cold spots. The microwave field is completely homogenous. Because of this, there is no reflected energy, and no need for an isolator. These traits allow single mode microwaves to be much smaller than multimode, and usually of a much lower power as there is a 100% transfer of energy into the sample.  While most multimode microwaves are 1000+ watts, the typical single mode will be around 300 watts.

single vs multimode cavity

Power Measurement

Most microwave ovens only produce one power level. Power is measured and delivered by the amount of time the magnetron stays on. So if you were running something at 50% power for 1 minute, the magnetron would be on for a total of 30 seconds. You can measure the output power of any microwave by heating 1 liter of water at 100% power for 2 minutes. Multiply the difference in temperature by 35, and that is your power in watts.

There are other types of microwaves that control power by adjusting the current through the magnetron. This type of control is often utilized by moisture solids analyzers, where are more precise control is needed to keep samples from burning.

Have you used a microwave and an arduino for something other than cooking food? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks to [konnigito] for the tip!

Who’s Watching the Kids?

It wasn’t long ago that we saw the Echo bloom into existence as a standalone product from its conceptual roots as a smartphone utility. These little black columns have hardly collected their first film of dust on our coffee tables and we’re already seeing similar technology debut on the toy market, which causes me to raise an eye-brow.

There seems to be some appeal towards making toys smarter, with the intent being that they may help a child learn while they play. Fair enough. It was recently announced that a WiFi enabled, “Hello Barbie” doll will be released sometime this Fall. This new doll will not only be capable of responding to a child’s statements and questions by accessing the Internet at large, it will also log the likes and dislikes of its new BFF on a cloud database so that it can reference the information for later conversations. Neat, right? Because it’s totally safe to trust the Internet with information innocently surrendered by your child.

Similarly there is a Kickstarter going on right now for a re-skinned box-o-internet for kids in the shape of a dinosaur. The “GreenDino”, is the first in a new line called, CogniToys, from a company touted by IBM which has its supercomputer, Watson, working as a backbone to answer all of the questions a child might ask. In addition to acting as an informational steward, the GreenDino will also toss out questions, and upon receiving a correct answer, respond with praise.

Advancements in technology are stellar. Though I can see where a child version of myself would love having an infinitely smart robot dinosaur to bombard with questions, in the case of WiFi and cloud connectivity, the novelty doesn’t outweigh the potential hazards the technology is vulnerable to. Like what, you ask?

Whether on Facebook or some other platform, adults accept the unknown risks involved when we put personal information out on the Internet. Say for instance I allow some mega-corporation to store on their cloud that my favorite color is yellow. By doing so, I accept the potential outcome that I will be thrown into a demographic and advertised to… or in ten years be dragged to an internment camp by a corrupt yellow-hating government who subpoenaed information about me from the corporation I consensually surrendered it to.

The fact is that I understand those types of risks… no matter how extreme and silly they might seem. The child playing with the Barbie does not.

All worst case scenarios of personal data leakage and misuse aside, what happens when Barbie starts wanting accessories? Or says to their new BFF something like, “Wouldn’t we have so much more fun if I had a hot pink convertible?”

Ask Hackaday: Are Conductive Inks Going to Make It?

It’s amazing how affordable PCB fabrication has become. It has long been economical (although not always simple) to fabricate your own singe and double-sided boards at home, the access to professional fabrication is becoming universal. The drive continues downward for both cost and turnaround time. But there is growing interest in the non-traditional.

Over the last year we’ve seen a huge push for conductive-ink-based PCB techniques. These target small-run prototyping and utilize metals (usually silver) suspended in fluid (think glue) to draw traces rather than etching the traces out of a single thin layer of copper. Our question: do you think conductive in will become a viable prototyping option?

Voltera V-One Circuit Board Prototyping Machine

I recorded this interview at 2015 CES but was asked not to publish it until their crowd funding campaign went live. If you haven’t been paying attention, Voltera is at almost 400% of their $70k goal with 26 days remaining. This printer definitely works. You can print circuits, solder components or reflow them, and there’s even a second non-conductive ink that can be used to insulate between traces when they cross over one another. In the video [Alroy] suggests Voltera for small production runs of 10-20 boards. Would you see yourself using this for 10-20 boards?

Personally, I think I could solder point-to-point prototypes in less time. Consider this: the V-One will print your traces but you still must solder on the components yourself. If the board design reaches a high level of complexity, that timing may change, but how does the increased resistance of the ink compared to copper traces affect the viability of a board? I assume that something too complex to solder point-to-point would be delving into high-frequency communications (think parallel bus for LCD displays, etc.). Is my assumption correct? Do you think conductive ink will get to the point that this is both viable and desirable over etching your own prototypes and how long before we get there?

Now, I certainly do see some perfect use-cases for Voltera. For instance, introduction to circuit design classes. If you had one of these printers at the middle school or high school level it would jump-start interest in electronics engineering. Without the need for keeping chemical baths like Cuperic Chloride or Ferric Chloride on hand, you could walk students through simple board design and population, with the final product to take home with them. That’s a vision I can definitely get behind and one that I think will unlock the next generation of hardware hackers.

Correction: [Arachnidster] pointed out in the comments that Voltera is still working on being able to reflow boards printed by the V-One. On their Kickstarter page they mention: “(Reflow onto Voltera printed boards is currently under development)”

Ask Hackaday: Bringing Your Design to Market

While many of us have made and documented our open source projects, not many of us have tried to sell our design to the masses. [Scott] developed, marketed, and “bootstrapped” a cool looking MIDI controller. Now, before you get your jumpers in a bunch – the project is completely open source. [Scott] documented the entire process of not only the design, but the trials and tribulations of bringing it to market as well. Calculating costs, FCC testing and the many other challenges of bringing a consumer electronics device to market are all detailed in his blog. Join me while we look at the highs and lows of his interesting and eventually worthwhile journey.

Putting yourself into a game where orders are in the tens of thousands, with hundreds of thousands of dollars changing hands is not easy when you’re just a guy with an idea and a soldering iron. [Scott] was up for the challenge, however. He quickly realized that much of the margin is spent on advertising and to cover risk. On his last order, some of the paint was chipping off. He had to fix the paint and repackage everything – all at his cost.

He also talks about the learning process of product design along the way. His original idea was to make a volume controller, but couldn’t sell a single one. He was forced to redesign the software into the MIDI controller as it exists today. He tried to launch a Kickstarter, but was rejected. This turned out to be a good thing, however, because he would have wound up kickstarting a product that didn’t work.

For advertising, he relied on Google and made some extremely detailed tutorials for his product. Many of them can be used for other MIDI controllers, and often come up in Google searches. Smart. Very smart.

Be sure to check out the video below, where [Scott] gets into some capacitive touch design theory, and talks about how not to cut your final product in half while on the CNC.

Have any of you ever tried to mass produce and sell one of your designs? Let us know in the comments!

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Ask Hackaday: Understanding the x86 Memory Addressing System

A quick look at the pinouts of an Intel 8086 & 8088 processor reveals a 20 bit address bus. There was high demand for the ability to address 1 meg (2^20) of address space, and Intel delivered. However, a curious individual would wonder how they can achieve such a feat with only 16 bit registers. Intel solved this riddle by combining two registers so they could make it compatible with code written for the 8008, 8080 & 8085. The process they use can be a bit confusing when trying to figure out where to locate your code in the ROM. In this article, we are going to go over the basics of how the Physical Address is calculated and how to locate your code correctly in ROM.

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Ask Hackaday: Your Very First Microcontroller

Necessity is the mother of invention. It is also true that invention necessitates learning new things. And such was the case on the stormy Tuesday morning our story begins.  Distant echos of thunder reverberated in the small 8 x 16 workshop, drawing my attention to the surge suppressor powering my bench.  With only a few vacation days left, my goal of finishing the hacked dancing Santa Claus toy was far from complete. It was for a Secret Santa gift, and I wanted to impress. The Santa moved from side to side as it sang a song. I wanted to replace the song with a custom MP3 track. In 2008, MP3 players were cheap and ripe for hacking. They could readily be picked up at local thrift shops, and I had picked up a few. It soon became clear, however, that I would need a microcontroller to make it do what I wanted it to do.

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Ask Hackaday: A Robot’s Black Market Shopping Spree

It was bad when kids first started running up cell phone bills with excessive text messaging. Now we’re living in an age where our robots can go off and binge shop on the Silk Road with our hard earned bitcoins. What’s this world coming to? (_sarcasm;)

For their project ‘Random Darknet Shopper’, Swiss artists [Carmen Weisskopf] and [Domagoj Smoljo] developed a computer program that was given 100 dollars in bitcoins and granted permission to lurk on the dark inter-ether and make purchases at its own digression. Once a week, the AI would carrying out a transaction and have the spoils sent back home to its parents in Switzerland. As the random items trickled in, they were photographed and put on display as part of their exhibition, ‘The Darknet. From Memes to Onionland’ at Kunst Halle St. Gallen. The trove of random purchases they received aren’t all illegal, but they will all most definitely get you thinking… which is the point of course. They include everything from a benign Lord of the Rings audio book collection to a knock-off Hungarian passport, as well as the things you’d expect from the black market, like baggies of ecstasy and a stolen Visa credit card. The project is meant to question current sanctions on trade and investigate the world’s reaction to those limitations. In spite of dabbling in a world of questionable ethics and hazy legitimacy, the artists note that of all the purchases made, not a single one of them turned out to be a scam.

Though [Weisskopf] and [Smoljo] aren’t worried about being persecuted for illegal activity, as Swiss law protects their right to freely express ideas publicly through art, the implications behind their exhibition did raise some questions along those lines. If your robot goes out and buys a bounty of crack on its own accord and then gives it to its owner, who is liable for having purchased the crack?

If a collection of code (we’ll loosely use the term AI here) is autonomous, acting independent of its creator’s control, should the creator still be held accountable for their creation’s intent? If the answer is ‘no’ and the AI is responsible for the repercussions, then we’re entering a time when its necessary to address AI as separate liable entities. However, if you can blame something on an AI, this suggests that it in some way has rights…

Before I get ahead of myself though, this whole notion circulates around the idea of intent. Can we assign an artificial form of life with the capacity to have intent?