Flashed the wrong firmware? Swap out the LCD to match!

We always joke about the hardware guys saying that they’ll fix it in firmware, and vice-versa, but this is ridiculous. When [Igor] tried to update his oscilloscope and flashed the wrong firmware version in by mistake, he didn’t fix it in firmware. Instead, he upgraded the LCD display to match the firmware.

See, Siglent doesn’t make [Igor]’s DSO any more; they stopped using the 4:3 aspect ratio screens and replaced them with wider versions. Of course, this is an improvement for anyone buying a new scope, but not if you’ve got the small screen in yours and can’t see anything anymore. After playing around with flashing other company’s firmware (for a similar scope) and failing to get it done over the JTAG, he gave up on the firmware and started looking for a hardware solution.

It turns out that a few SMT resistors set the output screen resolution. After desoldering the appropriate resistors, [Igor] bought a new 7″ LCD screen online only to find out that it has a high-voltage backlight and that he’d need to build an inverter (and hide the noisy circuit inside his oscilloscope). Not daunted, he went digging through his junk box until he found a backlight panel of the right size from another display.

Yet more small soldering, and he had frankensteined a new backlight into place. Of course, the larger LCD won’t fit the case without some cutting, double-sided tape, and a healthy dose of black tape all around insulates the loose electricals. Et voilá!

We have to hand it to [Igor], he’s got moxie. It’s an ugly hack, but it’s a definite screen upgrade, and a lesser hacker would have stopped after flashing the wrong firmware and thrown the thing in the trash. We’d be proud to have that scope sitting on our desk; it’s a definite conversation starter, and a badge of courage to boot.

Applications for the Bitcoin Blockchain

Bitcoin, the libertarian’s dream currency, is far past the heady days of late 2013. When one Bitcoin was worth $1000 USD, there was no end to what could be done; new, gigantic mining rigs were being created, every online store jumped onto the bandwagon, and the price of Bitcoin inevitably crashed. Right now, the exchange rate sits at about $280 USD per coin, valuing all the Bitcoins ever mined somewhere around $4 Billion USD. That’s a lot of coins out there, and a lot of miners constantly verifying the integrity of the greatest thing to come from the Bitcoin community: the blockchain.

The bitcoin is just a record, or the ledger, of every transaction that has ever occurred on the Bitcoin network. It’s distributed, and the act of mining coins creates new blocks, or another set of data committed to the blockchain for eternity. While magical Internet money™ is by far the most visible product of the blockchain, developers, investors, and other people in the know are gushing about the possibilities of what can be done with a distributed record that can’t practically be altered and can’t be deleted.

[Jon Matonis], a figurehead for the entire cryptocurrency movement, recently said Bitcoin has become the strongest computer in the world, and stronger than all of the top 500 supercomputers combined. All of this computational power is effectively funneled in to verifying the integrity of the blockchain.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are not just a completely anonymous payment system; that’s only a side effect of the blockchain. The blockchain is the only inherently valuable part of a bitcoin; each transaction is logged in the blockchain, providing incredible security over how every coin is spent. No currency in the history of mankind has ever had a record of how every dollar or denarius is spent, and at the very least makes for very interesting economics research. Now, thousands of researchers across the globe are wondering what else the blockchain can do; tapping the power of the most powerful computer on the planet must have some interesting applications, and in the last few months, a few ideas have popped up.

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Better Capacitors Through Nanotechnology

Traditionally, capacitors are like really bad rechargeable batteries. Supercapacitors changed that, making it practical to use a fast-charging capacitor in place of rechargeable batteries. However, supercapacitors work in a different way than conventional (dielectric) capacitors. They use either an electrostatic scheme to achieve very close separation of charge (as little as 0.3 nanometers) or electrochemical pseudocapacitance (or sometime a combination of those methods).

In a conventional capacitor the two electrodes are as close together as practical and as large as practical because the capacitance goes up with surface area and down with distance between the plates. Unfortunately, for high-performance energy storage, capacitors (of the conventional kind) have a problem: you can get high capacitance or high breakdown voltage, but not both. That’s intuitive since getting the plates closer makes for higher capacitance but also makes the dielectric more likely to break down as the electric field inside the capacitor becomes higher with both voltage and closer plate spacing (the electric field, E, is equal to the voltage divided by the plate spacing).

[Guowen Meng] and others from several Chinese and US universities recently published a paper in the journal Science Advances that offers a way around this problem. By using a 3D carbon nanotube electrode, they can improve a dielectric capacitor to perform nearly as well as a supercapacitor (they are claiming 2Wh/kg energy density in their device).

cap1The capacitor forms in a nanoporous membrane of anodic aluminum oxide. The pores do not go all the way through, but stop short, forming a barrier layer at the bottom of each pore. Some of the pores go through the material in one direction, and the rest go through in the other direction. The researchers deposited nanotubes in the pores and these tubes form the plates of the capacitor (see picture, right). The result is a capacitor with a high-capacity (due to the large surface area) but with an enhanced breakdown voltage thanks to the uniform pore walls.

cap2To improve performance, the pores in the aluminum oxide are formed so that one large pore pointing in one direction is surrounded by six smaller pores going in the other direction (see picture to left). In this configuration, the capacitance in a 1 micron thick membrane could be as high as 9.8 microfarads per square centimeter.

For comparison, most high-value conventional capacitors are electrolytic and use two different plates: a plate of metallic foil and a semi-liquid electrolyte.  You can even make one of these at home, if you are so inclined (see video below).

We’ve talked about supercapacitors before (even homebrew ones), and this technology could make high capacitance devices even better. We’ve also talked about graphene supercaps you can build yourself with a DVD burner.

It is amazing to think how a new technology like carbon nanotubes can make something as old and simple as a capacitor better. You have to wonder what other improvements will come as we understand these new materials even better.

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This Animatronic Hand is So Metal

According to his Instructables profile, [bwebby] wants to make cool stuff in the special effects industry. We think he has a pretty good chance at it based on the animatronic hand he built.

The finger segments are made from copper pipe. They are connected to each other and to the sheet metal palm with tiny hinges and superglue. That stuff inside the finger segments is epoxy putty. It keeps the ends of the tendons made from bicycle gearing cable firmly attached to the fingertip segments, and provides a channel through the rest of the fingers. These cables run through 50mm aluminium tubes that are set in a sheet metal forearm, and they connect to high-torque servos mounted on a piece of MDF. [bwebby] used a Pololu Mini Maestro to control the servos using the board’s native USB interface and control software.

Watch [bwebby] run through some movements and try out the grip after the break. If you want to make an animatronic hand but aren’t ready for this type of undertaking, you could start with an approach closer to puppetry.

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An Improvement to Floating Point Numbers

On February 25, 1991, during the eve of the of an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia, a Scud missile fired from Iraqi positions hit a US Army barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. A defense was available – Patriot missiles had intercepted Iraqi Scuds earlier in the year, but not on this day.

The computer controlling the Patriot missile in Dhahran had been operating for over 100 hours when it was launched. The internal clock of this computer was multiplied by 1/10th, and then shoved into a 24-bit register. The binary representation of 1/10th is non-terminating, and after chopping this down to 24 bits, a small error was introduced. This error increased slightly every second, and after 100 hours, the system clock of the Patriot missile system was 0.34 seconds off.

A Scud missile travels at about 1,600 meters per second. In one third of a second, it travels half a kilometer, and well outside the “range gate” that the Patriot tracked. On February 25, 1991, a Patriot missile would fail to intercept a Scud launched at a US Army barracks, killing 28 and wounding 100 others. It was the first time a floating point error had killed a person, and it certainly won’t be the last.

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The Inaccurate Predictions Of Back To The Future

Sometime this evening, after we haven’t rehydrated a pizza for dinner, all of the events portrayed in Back To The Future will have happened in the past. This is it. This is the day all your dreams die.

So, what’s so special about the technology in Back To The Future that we don’t have now? Hoverboards, obviously, but a lot of people have been doing their part to make sure we have something like a hoverboard on this important day. Last week, the record for the longest hoverboard flight was broken by a Canadian company making large multirotor platforms. While it’s called a hoverboard, it’s really not in the spirit of the device that would recreate the skateboard chase scene in front of Hill Valley’s courthouse. For that, you’ll need something that doesn’t use propellers, at least.

There’s a better way to construct a hoverboard than by strapping a few blenders to your feet. Last summer, Lexus built one with superconducting materials and magnets. Yes, it’s effectively the same demonstration you’ve always seen with superconducting materials, only this time it’s dressed up with pro skaters. There are tens of thousands of dollars worth of magnets in the Lexus hoverboard, making this entirely impractical for anyone who wants to build their own.

next-yearThere is another option if you want a hoverboard. This day, last year, Hendo Hoverboards launched a Kickstarter with the best media blitz we’ve ever seen. They built a hoverboard that is basically a quadcopter, but instead of propellers, they use magnets. These magnets produce eddy currents in the metallic, non-ferrous ‘hover surface’. The grand prize for this Kickstarter? Today, October 21, 2015, you’ll be invited to a VIP event where you will not only get to ride a hoverboard, you’ll get one to take home. Price: $10,000.

News Drones
News drones. People still read newspapers.

This company isn’t in the market of building hoverboards; they have a much, much more grandiose idea: the founder wants to use hoverboards as a stepping stone to an active earthquake mitigation strategy for buildings. Yes, buildings can hover inches above their foundation, just in case an earthquake strikes. You say the power might go out during an earthquake, causing the building to fall inches to the ground? I never said it was a good idea.

Lucky for us, the Hendo hoverboard did prove to be a proof of concept that a ‘spinning magnet’ hoverboard is capable of supporting the weight of a rider. We know a few people have been working on this technology before the Hendo hoverboard was announced, and replicating the Hendo hoverboard build shouldn’t cost more than about $1000 USD. We’re eventually going to have to do this, and we’re going to replicate the Pitbull hoverboard, bojo, because we want powah.

So, what else of Back to the Future Part II hasn’t become a reality? News drones. People don’t read newspapers anymore. Self-driving cars are more realistic than hovercar conversions. Pepsi Perfect exists, but only at a Comic Con. Nike Air Mags exist, but not with power laces. The world of Hill Valley still has fax machines, and I really want to rehydrate a pizza.

cubbiesIt’s alright, most of the technology of Back to the Future was just a joke; ‘Queen Diana’ would have never happened, and what exactly was the point of Gray’s Sports Almanac if you can look everything up on the Internet?

There was one possibly accurate prediction in Back to the Future: The Chicago Cubs may win the 2015 World Series. Let me repeat that, for effect. The most accurate prediction of the future given to us in Back to the Future was that the Chicago Cubs win the World Series. That’s how inaccurate Back To The Future was.

Bioluminescent Challenge has Students Feeding Their Lamps

[Tom Lombardo] is an engineer and an educator. When a company sent him a Dino Pet–a bioluminescent sculpture–he found it wasn’t really usable as a practical light source. He did, however, realize it would be an interesting STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) project for students to produce bioluminescent sculptures.

The lamps (or sculptures, if you prefer) contain dinoflagellates which is a type of plankton that glows when agitated. Of course, they don’t put out a strong light and–the main problem–you have to agitate the little suckers to get them to emit light. [Tom] found that there was a mild afterglow when you stop shaking, but not much. You can get an idea of how much light they make in the video below. The idea for a school project would be to make practical ambient lighting that didn’t require much input power to agitate the plankton.

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