History Of The Capacitor – The Modern Era

The pioneering years in the history of capacitors was a time when capacitors were used primarily for gaining an early understanding of electricity, predating the discovery even of the electron. It was also a time for doing parlor demonstrations, such as having a line of people holding hands and discharging a capacitor through them. The modern era of capacitors begins in the late 1800s with the dawning of the age of the practical application of electricity, requiring reliable capacitors with specific properties.

Leyden Jars

Marconi with transmitting apparatus
Marconi with transmitting apparatus, Published on LIFE [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One such practical use was in Marconi’s wireless spark-gap transmitters starting just before 1900 and into the first and second decade. The transmitters built up a high voltage for discharging across a spark gap and so used porcelain capacitors to withstand that voltage. High frequency was also required. These were basically Leyden jars and to get the required capacitances took a lot of space.

Mica

In 1909, William Dubilier invented smaller mica capacitors which were then used on the receiving side for the resonant circuits in wireless hardware.

Early mica capacitors were basically layers of mica and copper foils clamped together as what were called “clamped mica capacitors”. These capacitors weren’t very reliable though. Being just mica sheets pressed against metal foils, there were air gaps between the mica and foils. Those gap allowed for oxidation and corrosion, and meant that the distance between plates was subject to change, altering the capacitance.

In the 1920s silver mica capacitors were developed, ones where the mica is coated on both sides with the metal, eliminating the air gaps. With a thin metal coating instead of thicker foils, the capacitors could also be made smaller. These were very reliable. Of course we didn’t stop there. The modern era of capacitors has been marked by one breakthrough after another for a fascinating story. Let’s take a look.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: DIY Ceramic PCBs

We’ve seen hundreds of ways to create your own PCBs at home. If you have a laser printer, you can put traces on a piece of copper clad board. If you have some hydrogen peroxide and acid, you can etch those traces. Don’t have either? Build a tiny mill and cut through the copper with a Dremel. Making your own PCBs at home is easy, provided your boards are made out of FR4 and copper sheets.

Printed circuit boards can be so much cooler than a piece of FR4, though. Ceramic PCBs are the height of board fabrication technology, producing a very hard board with near perfect electrical properties, high thermal conductivity, and a dielectric strength similar to mineral transformer oil. Ceramic PCBs are for electronics going to space or inside nuclear reactors.

For his entry into this year’s Hackaday Prize, [Chuck] is building these space grade PCBs. Not only is he tackling the hardest challenge PCB fabrication has to offer, he’s building a machine to automate the process.

The basic process of building ceramic PCBs is to create a sheet of alumina, glass powder, and binder. This sheet is first drilled out, then silver ink is printed on top. Layers of these sheets are stacked on top of each other, and the whole stack is rammed together in a press and fired in a furnace.

Instead of making his own unfired ceramic sheets, he’s just buying it off the shelf. It costs about a dollar per square inch. This material is held down on a laser cutter/inkjet combo machine with a vacuum table. It’s just a beginning, but [Chuck] has everything he needs to start his experiments in creating truly space grade PCBs.

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Good Vibrations in 3D-Printed Clay

An engineer with a 3D printer wants everything to be rigid and precise. Wobble induced by flex in the z-axis feedscrews, for instance, makes telltale wavy patterns in the surface that match exactly the screw pitch. Nobody likes those, right? Certainly not an engineer!

good_vibrations-shot0008_thumbnailBut one man’s surface irregularity is another man’s ornamentation. The details we have are sparse, but from looking at the video (also inlined below the break) it’s clear enough: [Olivier van Herpt] and [Ricky van Broekhoven] stuck a vibrating woofer underneath the print bed of their ceramic printer, and use it to intentionally ruin their smooth surface. And they do so to great artistic effect!

We’re not suggesting that you give up entirely on your calibrations, but we do appreciate a little out-of-the-box thinking from time to time. But then our internal engineer raises his head and we wonder if they’re linking the pitch of the woofer to the feed rate of the print head. Your thoughts in the comments?

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Ceramic hot-end mount seeks to improve extrude performace

ceramic-hot-end-mount

Take a gander at the part of this extruder head which looks like a chess pawn. It’s the mounting bracket for the hot end and it’s made out of ceramic. [Ed] came up with the idea to use ceramic to mount the hot end when trying to improve the design while keeping it rather simple and easy to assemble. The concept uses the thermal properties of the ceramic to insulate well enough to operate the extruder at higher temperatures without causing other problems.

Where does one get a custom ceramic part anyway? Turns out you can get low volume runs from China much like PCBs. The minimum order was ten units, which was still a leap of faith since he had no way of testing the design in advance. The first run with the new part went quite well, but only for the first layer and then the filament jammed. He’s still not sure why, but overcame the issue by lining the inside of the ceramic with a PTFE tube. This means he now has to use a smaller filament to fit through it. But the quality of the prints he’s getting with 1.75mm stock and the ceramic head are superb.

It may even be possible to print this ceramic part some day. We remember seeing another extruder that can deposit ceramic clay.

Retrofitting a 60-year old electric heater

electric_heater_retrofit

[John] found an old Kenmore electric heater at a junk store one day, and thought it would look great in his bathroom. The only problem with the unit is that it was built back in the 1940s/1950s, so it lacked any sort of modern safeguards that you would expect from an indoor heater. There was no on/off switch, no fuse, no thermostat, and no tip switch – though it did have a nice, flammable cloth-covered power cord.

Since [John] wasn’t too keen on burning his house down in the name of staying warm, he decided to retrofit the old unit’s shell with a new ceramic heater. He found a $20 unit that looked like it would fit, so he disassembled both heaters and got to work. The Kenmore’s innards were scrapped, then he gave the unit a nice fresh coat of high-temp paint. The new heater was cut to fit inside the old unit’s shell, controls and safety features intact.

He says that it works very well, and that it looks great in his bathroom. If you’re considering doing something similar, be sure to check out his writeup – it is very thorough and has plenty of details that will help you along the way.

Open3DP looks at 3D printing in common materials

[Buddy Smith] sent us a link to Open3DP which he calls “REAL 3d printing hacks”. Open3DP showcases the projects of the Solheim Rapid Prototyping Laboratory at the University of Washington. They’re working on 3D printing in materials that can be commonly acquired and to that end they publish recipes for powder printing in materials such as sugar, ceramic, and glass. Take a look through their archives. We found the post on microwave kilns interesting, as well as the writeup about Shapeways glass printing which is seen above. We’ve also embedded a short video on Open3DP’s work after the break.

Update: [Mark Ganter] dropped us a line to clarify that Open3DP was the first to develop printable glass about a year ago, called Vitraglyphic. They’ll also be presenting papers at Rapid2010 and announcing a new printable material.

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PID SMD reflow hot plate

[mightyohm] put together a nice piece of lab kit. It’s a PID controlled hot plate. The plate is capable of reaching 500F, hot enough to do SMD reflow soldering. The large chunk of metal has a hole drilled through the center to contain a cartridge heater. A thermocouple is used to monitor the temperature of the plate. Ceramic standoffs separate the plate from the rest of the device, but he still needs to come up with a way to stop the radiant heating. The control box houses the surplus PID controller along with the power switch and solid state relay (SSR).