Hacking and Kids: The One Hour Egg Drop

In the last Hacking and Kids post, I talked about an activity you can do with kids when you don’t have a lot of time or resources. The key idea was to have fun and learn a little bit about open and closed loop control. One of the things I usually briefly mention when I do that is the idea of a design trade: Why, for example, a robot might use wheels instead of legs, or treads instead of wheels.

Engineers and makers perform trades like this all the time. Suppose you are building a data logging system. You want precise samples, large storage capacity, and many channels. But you also want a low cost and low power drain. You might also want high reliability. All of these requirements will lead to different trades. A hard drive would provide a lot of space, but is more expensive, less reliable, larger, and more power hungry than, say, an SD card. So there isn’t a right choice. It depends on which of the factors are most important for this particular design. A data logger in a well-powered rack might be well served to have a terrabyte hard drive, while a battery powered logger in a matchbox that will be up on the side of a mountain might be better off with an SD card.

We can all relate to that example, but it is pretty boring to a kid. You probably can’t get them to design a data logger, anyway. But if I have about an hour and a little prep time, I have a different way to get the same point across. It is a modified version of the classic “egg drop”, but it is simple enough to do in an hour with very little preparation time.

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Light Speed: It’s not Just a Good Idea

[Kerry Wong] took apart a PM2L color analyzer (a piece of photography darkroom gear) and found a photomultiplier tube (PMT) inside. PMTs are excellent at detecting very small amounts of light, but they also have a very fast response time compared to other common detection methods. [Kerry] decided to use the tube to measure the speed of light.

There are several common methods to indirectly measure the speed of light by relating frequency to wavelength (for example, using microwave ovens and marshmallows). However, measuring it directly is difficult because of the scale involved. In only a microsecond, light travels almost 1000 feet (986 feet or 299.8 meters).

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Build a Baby Plasma Cutter–Right Now!

What hacker doesn’t want a plasma cutter? Even if you aren’t MacGyver, you can probably build this one in a few minutes using things you have on hand. The catch? You probably can’t cut anything more than tin foil with it, and it is probably more a carbon-air arc gouger (which uses plasma) than a true plasma cutter. Still, as [Little Shop of Physics] shows on the video, it does a fine job of slicing right through foil.

If you are like us, you are back now after getting four 9V batteries, some tin foil, a pencil lead, and some clip leads and trying it. If you have more self-restraint than we do, you might want to think about what you are going to put the tin foil over. In the video, they used a laundry basket and a rubber band, but anything that keeps the foil suspended would do the trick.

Although it isn’t really a practical plasma cutter, we were thinking about strapping something like this to a 3D printer and cutting foil stencils. The jagged edges on the video are, hopefully, more from being operated by hand and less from the jagged mini-lightning bolt vaporizing the foil.

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Building a Battery from Molten Salt

During World War II a scientist named Georg Otto Erb developed the molten salt battery for use in military applications. The war ended before Erb’s batteries found any real use, but British Intelligence wrote a report about the technology and the United States adopted the technology for artillery fuses.

Molten salt batteries have two main advantages. First, you can store them for a long time (50 years or more) with no problems. Once the salt melts (usually from a pyrotechnic charge), the battery can produce a lot of energy for a relatively short period of time thanks to the high ionic conductivity of the electrolyte (about three times that of sulfuric acid).

[OrbitalDesigns] couldn’t find a DIY version of a molten salt battery so he decided to make one himself. Although he didn’t get the amount of power you’d find in a commercial design, it did provide 1.6V and enough power to light an LED.

The electrolyte was a mixture of potassium chloride and lithium chloride and melts at about 350 to 400 degrees Celsius. He used nickel and magnesium for electrodes. Potassium chloride is used as a salt substitute, so it isn’t dangerous to handle (at least, no more dangerous than anything else heated to 400 degrees Celsius). The lithium compound, however, is slightly toxic (even though it was briefly sold as a salt substitute, also). If you try to replicate the battery, be sure you read the MSDS for all the materials.

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Homemade High Voltage Caps

Do you happen to have any 15,000 volt capacitors sitting around? [Ludic Science] didn’t so he did the next best thing. He built some.

If you understand the physics behind a capacitor (two parallel conductors separated by a dielectric) you won’t find the build process very surprising. [Ludic] uses transparency film as an insulator and aluminum foil for the conductive plates. Then he wraps them into a tube. He did throw in a few interesting tips about keeping the sheets smooth and how to attach the wires to the foil. The brown paper wrapper reminded us of old caps you might find in an antique radio.

The best part by far, though, was the demonstration of drawing an arc from a high voltage power supply with and without the capacitor in the circuit. As you might expect, playing with a few thousand volts charged into a capacitor requires a certain amount of caution, so be careful!

[Ludic] measured the capacitance value with a standard meter, but it wasn’t clear where the 15,000 volt rating came from. Maybe it was the power supply he used in the video and the capacitor could actually go higher.

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Second grade science project: a steam engine


If you’re looking for a way to let the kids get hand-ons with science this is a perfect example of how to do it. [Erich] wanted to help out with his 7-year-old’s science project. They decided to build a working model of a steam engine but couldn’t find online instructions appropriate for the age group. So the two of them not only pulled off the build, but then they wrote a guide for others to follow. The thing about it is, you really have to understand a concept to teach it to someone else. So we think the write-up is equally important to having actually done the experiment.

Steam can scald you if you’re not careful. But you don’t really need steam to explore the concepts of a steam engine. The main reason to use steam is that it’s a fairly rudimentary way to build pressure which can be converted to motion. For this demonstration the blue balloon provides that pressure. It’s feeding a reservoir that connects to the valve built out of straws. A plastic piston inside pushes against the crank shaft, spinning the cardboard wheel on the left. When the piston travels past the valve opening it releases the air pressure until the machine makes a revolution and is in place for the next push. This is well demonstrated in the clip after the break.

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