Experimental Gases, Danger, and The Rock-afire Explosion

DowntownExlosion12_1On the morning of September 26th, 2013 the city of Orlando was rocked by an explosion. Buildings shook, windows rattled, and Amtrak service on a nearby track was halted. TV stations broke in with special reports. The dispatched helicopters didn’t find fire and brimstone, but they did find a building with one wall blown out. The building was located at 47 West Jefferson Street. For most this was just another news day, but a few die-hard fans recognized the building as Creative Engineering, home to a different kind of explosion: The Rock-afire Explosion.

The Inventor and His Band of Robots

rockafireMany of us have heard of the Rock-afire Explosion, the animatronic band which graced the stage of ShowBiz pizza from 1980 through 1990. For those not in the know, the band was created by the inventor of Whac-A-Mole, [Aaron Fechter], engineer, entrepreneur and owner of Creative Engineering. When ShowBiz pizza sold to Chuck E. Cheese, the Rock-afire Explosion characters were replaced with Chuck E. and friends. Creative Engineering lost its biggest customer. Once over 300 employees, the company was again reduced to just [Aaron]. He owned the building which housed the company, a 38,000 square foot shop and warehouse. Rather than sell the shop and remaining hardware, [Aaron] kept working there alone. Most of the building remained as it had in the 1980’s. Tools placed down by artisans on their last day of work remained, slowly gathering dust.

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Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: A Low Cost, DIY Fuel Cell

Electronic cars and planes are the wave of the future, or so we’re told, but if you do the math on power densities, the future looks bleak. Outside of nuclear power, you can’t beat the power density of liquid hydrocarbons, and batteries are terrible stores of energy. How then do we tap the potential of high density fuels while still being environmentally friendly? With [Lloyd]’s project for The Hackaday Prize, a low cost hydrogen fuel cell.

Traditionally, fuel cells have required expensive platinum electrodes to turn hydrogen and oxygen into steam and electricity. Recent advances in nanotechnology mean these electrodes may be able to be produced at a very low cost.

For his experiments, [Lloyd] is using sulfonated para-aramids – Kevlar cloth, really – for the proton carrier of the fuel cell. The active layer is made from asphaltenes, a waste product from tar sand extraction. Unlike platinum, the materials that go into this fuel cell are relatively inexpensive.

[Lloyd]’s fuel cell can fit in the palm of his hand, and is predicted to output 20A at 18V. That’s doesn’t include the tanks for supplying hydrogen or any of the other system ephemera, but it is an incredible amount of energy in a small package.

You can check out [Lloyd]’s video for the Hackaday Prize below.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

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Retrotechtacular: Using the Jet Stream for Aerial Warfare

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are all the rage these days. But while today’s combative UAV technology is as modern as possible, the idea itself is not a new one. Austria floated bomb-laden balloons at Venice in the middle 1800s. About a hundred years later during WWII, the Japanese used their new-found knowledge of the jet stream to send balloons to the US and Canada.

Each balloon took about four days to reach the western coast of North America. They carried both incendiary and anti-personnel devices as a payload, and included a self-destruct. On the “business end” of the balloons was the battery, the demolition block, and a box containing four aneroid barometers to monitor altitude. In order to keep the balloons within the 8,000 ft. vertical range of the jet stream, they were designed to drop ballast sandbags beginning one day into flight using a system of blow plugs and fuses. In theory, the balloon has made it to North American air space on day four with nothing left hanging but the incendiaries and the central anti-personnel payload.

Although the program was short-lived, the Japanese launched some 9,300 of these fire balloons between November 1944 and April 1945. Several of them didn’t make it to land. Others were shot down or landed in remote areas. Several made the journey just fine, and two even floated all the way to Michigan. Not bad for a rice paper gas bag.

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The Platinum Catalyst Use in a Vintage Lighter

[Ben Krasnow] has an inimitable knack for choosing the most interesting concepts for his experiments. We’re sure it’s a combination of base knowledge and epic-curiosity. This time around he’s showing off a vintage cigarette lighter whose quirk is not needing to be “struck” to produce a flame. It’s a catalytic lighter that uses platinum to ignite methanol vapors.

The concept shown in the video below is platinum’s catalyst properties with some types of flammable gasses. The image above shows the cap of the lighter which includes a protective cage around a hunk of fine platinum powder known as platinum black. It is suspended by platinum wire and as the hydrogen passes by the reaction causes the platinum black and wire to glow red-hot.

This simple, quick experiment fills in our own knowledge gaps. We were already familiar with the role that catalytic converters play in automobiles; consuming any unburned hydrocarbons before they exit a vehicle’s exhaust system. We also know the these devices are targets for thieves seeking the platinum (and other metals like palladium and rhodium) found inside. Now we know exactly how catalytic converters work and the integral role that platinum plays in the process. All thanks to [Ben’s] demonstration of how this lighter works.

Now, if you wear a platinum wedding band and your hand passes a jet of hydrogen are you likely to get burned?

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Powering a RPi with Hydrogen


Looking for a new way to power your Raspberry Pi? The raspberryHy project aims to develop a small fuel cell designed for powering the credit card sized computer. It adds a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell, a battery, and custom control electronics to the Pi.

The system takes hydrogen in from a compressed hydrogen cartridge and feeds it through a regulator. This passes the hydrogen into the PEM fuel cell at the correct pressure, and creates a potential. The control electronics boost that voltage up to the 5 V required on the Pi’s USB port. There’s also an electronically controlled purge valve which periodically exhausts the fuel cell.

There’s a few reasons you might want to run your Pi with hydrogen. Run time of the fuel cell is limited only by the amount of hydrogen you can store. In theory, you could connect a large cylinder for very long run times. Combined with a battery, this could be quite useful for running Pis in remote locations, or for long-term backup power. The raspberryHy will be presented at Hannover Fair 2014 this month.

An Arduino hydrogen blimp… oh the humanity!


This sort of flying contraption seems more suited for indoor use. Well, except for the fire hazard presented by building an Android controlled hydrogen blimp. The problems we often see with quadcopters come into play when a motor wire comes loose and the thing goes flying off in a random direction. Loosing a motor on this airship will be no big deal by comparison.

Because the build relies on the buoyancy of the gas, light-weight components are the name of the game. The frame of the chassis is built from balsa wood. It supports two tiny DC motors which are almost indistinguishable in the image above. An Arduino nano and wireless receiver monitor commands from the transmitter and drive the propellers accordingly.

You may have noticed that we categorized this one as a chemistry hack. That’s because [Btimar] generated the hydrogen himself. He used an Erlenmeyer flask with a spout for the chemical reaction. After placing several heat sinks and other scraps of solid aluminum in the flask he poured on the lye solution. This generates the H2 but you need to keep things cool using ice to keep the reaction from getting out of control. We’re going to stick with helium filled blimps for the time being!

See this beast flying around [Btimar’s] living room in the clip after the break.

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Robot jellyfish fueled by hydrogen from the water around it

RoboJelly is certainly not what we’re used to seeing when it comes to robots. Instead of a cold metallic skeleton, this softie is modeled after jellyfish which have no bones. But that’s not the only thing that’s unusual about it. This robot also doesn’t carry its own power source. It gets the energy needed for locomotion from the water around it.

Artificial muscles are what give this the movement seen in the clip after the break. These muscles react to heat, and that heat is produced through a chemical reaction. The construction method starts with the muscle material, which is then covered in carbon nanotubes, and finally coated with black platinum dust. Sounds a bit like witchcraft, huh (Eye of newt, dragon heart string, etc.)? We certainly don’t have the chemistry background to understand how this all works. But we are impressed. So far it doesn’t have the ability to change direction, the flexing of all of the muscle material happens at the same time. But the next step in their research will be finding a way to route the “fuel” to give it some direction.

Edit – Looks like it is fueled externally. The actual study is here, but you need to log in to download it.

This brings another jellyfish-inspired robot to mind. Check out FESTO’s offering which flies through the air with the greatest of ease.

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