MEMS: The Biggest Word in Small

What’s tiny and on track to be worth $22 billion dollars by 2018? MEMS (Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems). That’s a catch-all phrase for microscopic devices that have moving parts. Usually, the component sizes range from 0.1 mm to 0.001 mm, which is tiny, indeed. There are some researchers working with even smaller components, sometimes referenced as NEMS (Nano Electrical Mechanical Systems).

Resonant Cantilever by [Pcflet01], CC BY-SA 3.0
MEMS have a wide range of applications including ink jet printers, accelerometers, gyroscopes, microphones, pressure sensors, displays, and more. Many of the sensors in a typical cell phone would not be possible without MEMS. There are many ways that MEMS devices are built, but just to get a flavor, consider the cantilever (see right), one of the most common MEMS constructions.

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200KV Capacitor Uses Cake Pan and Bowl

[PhysicsGirl] posts videos that would be good to use in a classroom or homeschool environment. She recently showed a 200KV capacitor made from a cake pan, a bowl, and some other common items (see video, below).

One of the most interesting things about the project was how they charged the capacitor. A PVC pipe and some common hardware made a wand that they’d charge by rubbing a foam sleeve up and down against the dome formed by a metal bowl. We might have used a cat, but there’s probably some law against that.

To discharge, they used the end of the wand and were able to get a 10 cm spark. Based on the dielectric constant for air, they estimated that equated to a 200KV charge. They also discharged it through someone’s finger, which didn’t seem like a great idea.

We’ve talked about [PhysicsGirl’s] videos before. Granted, a lot of this won’t help the experienced hacker, but if you work with kids, they are a great way to make physics interesting and approachable. We wish she’d spent more time on the actual construction (you’ll need to slow it down to see all the details), though. If you really want a capacitor for your high voltage mad science, you might find these more practical. We’ve seen many homemade capacitors for high voltage.

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Toshiro Kodera: Electromagnetic Gyrotropes

We’ve learned a lot by watching the talks from the Hackaday Superconferences. Still, it’s a rare occurrence to learn something totally new. Microwave engineer, professor, and mad hacker [Toshiro Kodera] gave a talk on some current research that he’s doing: replacing natural magnetic gyrotropic material with engineered metamaterials in order to make two-way beam steering antennas and more.

If you already fully understood that last sentence, you may not learn as much from [Toshiro]’s talk as we did. If you’re at all interested in strange radio-frequency phenomena, neat material properties, or are just curious, don your physics wizard’s hat and watch his presentation. Just below the video, we’ll attempt to give you the Cliff’s Notes.

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Physics or Phiction?

Do you remember Gilligan’s Island? For many people of a certain age, “The Professor” was our first impression of what a scientist was like. Even in those simpler times, though, you probably couldn’t find anyone like the professor; a jack of all trades, he sort of knew everything about everything (except, apparently, how to make a boat).

Real scientists tend to hyper-specialize. Getting grant money, publication pages, and just advancing the state of the art means that you get more and more focused on more obscure things. It is getting to the point that two scientists in the same field may not be able to really understand each other. You see the same thing in engineering to some degree. Not many digital designers can talk about the frequency dependence of Early effect in bipolar transistors, but not many device gurus can talk intelligently about reservation techniques for superscalar CPUs.

There’s now a website that lets you guess if a physics paper title is real or if it made up jibberish. The site, snarXiv, gets the real titles from arXiv, the site that contains many preprint papers. For example, we were asked to guess if “Brane Worlds with Bolts” was a real paper or if it was “Anthropic Approaches to the Flavor Problem.” (For the record, it was the one about branes.) Give it a whirl!

Dirt Cheap Muon Detector Puts Particle Physics Within DIY Reach

Subatomic physics is pretty neat stuff, but not generally considered within the reach of the home-gamer. With cavernous labs filled with racks of expensive gears and miles-wide accelerators, playing with the subatomic menagerie has been firmly in the hands of the pros for pretty much as long as the field has been in existence. But that could change with this sub-$100 DIY muon detector.

[Spencer Axani] has been fiddling with the idea of a tiny muon detector since his undergrad days. Now as an MIT doctoral candidate, he’s making that dream a reality. Muons are particles that are similar to electrons but more massive and less likely to be affected by electromagnetic fields. Muons rain down on the Earth’s surface at the rate of 10,000 per square meter every minute after being created by cosmic rays interacting with the atmosphere and are capable of penetrating deep into the planet. [Spencer]’s detector is purposely kept as low-budget as possible, using cheap plastic scintillators and solid-state photomultipliers hooked up to an Arduino. The whole project is as much STEM outreach as it is a serious scientific effort; the online paper (PDF link) stresses the mechanical and electronics skills needed to complete the build. At the $100 price point, this build is well within the means of most high school STEM programs and allows for a large, distributed array of muon detectors that has the potential for some exciting science.

We’ve covered quite a few subatomic detection projects before, from the aforementioned large-scale builds to more modest efforts. But we like this project because it has the potential to inspire a lot of citizen scientists.

Thanks for the tip, [deralchemist]

A Refrigerator Cooled by Rubber Bands

Ever noticed that a rubber band gets warmer when it’s stretched? The bands also get cooler when allowed to snap back to relaxed length? [Ben Krasnow] noticed, and he built a rubber band cooled refrigerator to demonstrate the concept. The idea of stretching a rubber band to make it hotter, then releasing it to make it cooler seems a bit counter intuitive. Normally when things get smaller (like a gas being compressed) they get hotter. When pressure is released the gas gets cooler. Rubber bands do the exact opposite. Stretching a rubber band makes it hot. Releasing the stretched band causes it to get cooler.

No, the second law of thermodynamics isn’t in jeopardy. The secret is in the molecular structure of rubber bands. The bands are made of long polymer chains. A relaxed rubber band’s chains are a tangled mess. Stretching the band causes the chains to untangle and line up in an orderly fashion. By stretching the band you are decreasing its entropy. The energy of the molecules in the band don’t change, but entropy does. All the work one does to stheatwheelretch the band has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is heat. This is all an example of entropic force. For a physics model of what’s going on, check out ideal chains. If you’re confused, watch the video. [Ben] does a better job of explaining entropic force visually than we can with text.

To test this phenomenon out, [Ben] first built a wheel with rubber bands as spokes. Placing the wheel in front of a heater caused it to slowly rotate. [Ben] then reversed the process by building a refrigerator. He modeled his parts in solidworks, then cut parts with his Shaper handheld CNC. The fridge itself consists of an offset wheel of rubber bands. The bands are stretched outside the fridge, and released inside. Two fans help transfer the thermal energy from the bands to the air. The whole thing is hand cranked, so this would make a perfect museum or educational demonstration. Cranking the fridge for 5 minutes did get the air inside a couple of degrees cooler. Rubber is never going to displace standard refrigerants, but this is a great demo of the principles of entropic force.

For more thermodynamic fun, check out [Al Williams] recent article about building a DIY heat pipe.

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You Can Learn a Lot from a Candle

Beginning in 1827, [Michael Faraday] began giving a series of public lectures at Christmas on various subjects. The “Christmas Lectures” continued for 19 years and became wildly popular with upper-class Londoners. [Bill Hammack], aka [The Engineer Guy], has taken on the task of presenting [Faraday]’s famous 1848 “The Chemical History of a Candle” lecture in a five-part video series that is a real treat.

We’ve only gotten through the first episode so far, but we really enjoyed it. The well-produced lectures are crisply delivered and filled with simple demonstrations that drive the main points home. [Bill] delivers more or less the original text of the lecture; some terminology gets an update, but by and large the Victorian flavor of the original material really comes through. Recognizing that this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, [Bill] and his colleagues provide alternate versions with a modern commentary audio track, as well as companion books with educational guides and student worksheets. This is a great resource for teachers, parents, and anyone looking to explore multiple scientific disciplines in a clear, approachable way.

If there were an award for the greatest scientist of all time, the short list would include [Faraday]. His discoveries and inventions in the fields of electricity, magnetism, chemistry, and physics spanned the first half of the 19th century and laid the foundation for the great advances that were to follow. That he could look into a simple candle flame and see so much is a testament to his genius, and that 150 years later we get to experience a little of what those lectures must have been like is a testament to [Bill Hammack]’s skill as an educator and a scientist.

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