Low Background Steel — So Hot Right Now

The nuclear age changed steel, and for decades we had to pay the price for it. The first tests of the atomic bomb were a milestone in many ways, and have left a mark in history and in the surface of the Earth. The level of background radiation in the air increased, and this had an effect on the production of steel, so that steel produced since 1945 has had elevated levels of radioactivity. This can be a problem for sensitive instruments, so there was a demand for steel called low background steel, which was made before the trinity tests.

The Bessemer process pumps air through the iron to remove impurities. shropshirehistory.com

The production of steel is done with the Bessemer process, which takes the molten pig iron and blasts air through it. By pumping air through the steel, the oxygen reacts with impurities and oxidizes, and the impurities are drawn out either as gas or slag, which is then skimmed off. The problem is that the atmospheric air has radioactive impurities of its own, which are deposited into the steel, yielding a slightly radioactive material. Since the late 1960s steel production uses a slightly modified technique called the BOS, or Basic Oxygen Steelmaking, in which pure oxygen is pumped through the iron. This is better, but radioactive material can still slip through. In particular, we’re interested in cobalt, which dissolves very easily in steel, so it isn’t as affected by the Bessemer or BOS methods. Sometimes cobalt is intentionally added to steel, though not the radioactive isotope, and only for very specialized purposes.

Recycling is another reason that modern steel stays radioactive. We’ve been great about recycling steel, but the downside is that some of those impurities stick around.

Why Do We Need Low Background Steel?

Imagine you have a sensor that needs to be extremely sensitive to low levels of radiation. This could be Geiger counters, medical devices, or vehicles destined for space exploration. If they have a container that is slightly radioactive it creates an unacceptable noise floor. That’s where Low Background Steel comes in.

A person is placed into a low background steel container with sensitive equipment to measure the radioactivity of the body, which may be near the background level. Photo from orau.org

So where do you get steel, which is a man-made material, that was made before 1945? Primarily from the ocean, in sunken ships from WWII. They weren’t exposed to the atomic age air when they were made, and haven’t been recycled and mixed with newer radioactive steel. We literally cut the ships apart underwater, scrape off the barnacles, and reuse the steel.

Fortunately, this is a problem that’s going away on its own, so the headline is really only appropriate as a great reference to a popular movie. After 1975, testing moved underground, reducing, but not eliminating, the amount of radiation pumped into the air. Since various treaties ending the testing of nuclear weapons, and thanks to the short half-life of some of the radioactive isotopes, the background radiation in the air has been decreasing. Cobalt-60 has a half-life of 5.26 years, which means that steel is getting less and less radioactive on its own (Cobalt-60 from 1945 would now be at .008% of original levels). The newer BOS technique exposes the steel to fewer impurities from the air, too. Eventually the need for special low background steel will be just a memory.

Oddly enough, steel isn’t the only thing that we’ve dragged from the bottom of the ocean. Ancient Roman lead has also had a part in modern sensing.

Internet Doorbell Gone Full-Hipster

There are things and there are Things. Hooking up an Internet-connected doorbell that “rings” a piezo buzzer or sends a text message is OK, but it’s not classy. In all of the Internet-of-Things hubbub, too much attention is paid to the “Internet”, which is actually the easy part, and too little attention is paid to the “Things”.

[Moris Metz] is a hacker in Berlin who has a bi-weekly national radio spot. (Only in Germany!) This week, he connected the ubiquitous ESP8266 to a nice old (physical) bell for his broadcast over the weekend. (i”Translated” here.) Check out the video teaser embedded below.

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A Tech That Didn’t Make It: Sound On Stainless Steel Wire

For a brief period in the 1940’s it might have been possible for a young enamored soul to hand his hopeful a romantic mix-spool of wire. This was right before the magnetic tape recorder and its derivatives came into full swing and dominated the industry thoroughly until the advent of the compact disk and under a hundred kilogram hard disk drives. [Techmoan] tells us all about it in this video.

The device works as one would expect, but it still sounds a little crazy. Take a ridiculously long spool of steel wire the size of a human hair(a 1 hour spool was 2.2km of wire), wind that through a recording head at high speed, magnetize the wire, and spool it onto a receiving spool.

If you’re really lucky the wire won’t dramatically break causing an irreversible tangle of wire. At that point you can reverse the process and hear the recorded sound. As [Techmoan] shows, the sound can best be described as… almost okay. Considering that its chief competition at the time was sound carved into expensive aluminum acetate plates, this wasn’t the worst.

The wire recorder lived on for a few more years in niche applications such as airplane black boxes. It finally died, but it does sound like a really fun couple-of-weekends project to try and build one. Make sure and take good pictures and send it in if any of you do.

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World’s oldest functioning digital computer reminds us of a telephone exchange

This is the WHICH, the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell. It is the oldest functioning digital computer and thanks to a lengthy restoration process you can go and see it in person at The National Museum of Computing in Milton Keynes (Northwest of London in the UK).

The system was first put into operation in 1951. It’s function is both familiar and foreign. First off, it uses decimal rather than binary for its calculations. And instead of transistors it uses electromechanical switches like are found in older automatic telephone exchanges. This makes for very noisy and slow operation. User input is taken from strips of paper with holes punched in them. As data is accumulated it is shown in the registers using decatrons (which have since become popular in hobby projects). Luckily we can get a look at this in the BBC story about the WITCH.

According to the eLinux page on the device, it was disassembled and put into storage from 1997 until 2009. At that point it was loaned to the museum and has been undergoing cleaning, reassembly, and repair ever since.

[Thanks David]