Hackaday Visits World’s Oldest Computer Festival: TCF 43

I was fortunate enough to visit the Trenton Computer Festival last weekend. The show struck a very interesting mix of new and old, commercial and educational. Attendees were writing programs in BASIC on an Apple I (courtesy of the Vintage Computer Federation) not more than five feet from where students were demonstrating their FIRST robot.

The one-day event featured over fifty demonstrations, talks, and workshops on topics ranging from a crash course in lock picking to the latest advancements in quantum computing. In the vendor room you could buy a refurbished laptop while just down the hall talks were being given on heady topics such as using neural networks and genetic algorithms for day trading on the stock market.

Recent years have seen a widening of the content presented, but TCF’s longevity means there is a distinct “vintage” vibe to the show and the culture surrounding it. Many of the attendees, and even some of the presenters, can proudly say they’ve been attending since the very first show in 1976.

There was simply too much going on to see everything. At any given time, there were eleven talks happening simultaneously, and that doesn’t include the demonstrations and workshops which ran all day. I documented as many highlights from this year’s TCF as I could for those who haven’t had a chance to visit what might be the most low-key, and certainly oldest, celebration of computing technology on the planet. Join me after the break for the whirlwind tour.

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Making Solar Cells

We will admit that it is unlikely you have enough gear in your basement to make a solar cell using these steps. However, it is interesting to see how a bare silicon wafer becomes a solar cell. If you’ve seen ICs going through fabrication, you’ll see a lot of similarities, but there are some differences.

The process calls for a silicon wafer, some ovens, spin coaters, photolithography equipment, and a dice saw, among other things. Oh, you probably also need a clean room. Maybe you should just buy your solar cells off the shelf, but it is still interesting to see how they are made.

Modern solar cells have some extra structures to improve their efficiency, but the cells in this video are pretty garden-variety. For example, some experimental cells use multiple layers of active devices, each tuned to absorb a different wavelength of light.

If you really want to make your own, there’s another process where you can start with some copper and wind up with a kind of solar cell that uses a copper-based semiconductor material. But don’t be fooled into thinking that making the silicon variety is totally out of reach to hackers, we’ve seen [Sam Zeloof] pull it off.

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Scanning Electron Microscope Adds to Already Impressive Garage Lab

When you’re a high schooler who built a semiconductor fab in your garage, what’s next on your agenda? Why, adding a scanning electron microscope to your lab, naturally. How silly of you to ask.

When last we stumbled across the goings on in the most interesting garage in New Jersey, [Sam Zeloof] was giving a tour of his DIY semiconductor fabrication lab and showing off some of the devices he’s made there, including diodes and MOSFETs. As impressive as those components are, it’s the equipment he’s accumulated that really takes our breath away. So adding an eBay SEM to the mix only seems a natural progression, and a good reason to use some of the high vacuum gear he has. The video below shows [Sam] giving a tour of the 1990s-vintage instrument and shows images of various copper-sputtered samples, including a tick, which is apparently the state bird of New Jersey.

SEM hacks are by no means common around here, but they’re not unheard of. [Ben Krasnow] has used his to image cutting tools and phonograph records in action, and there are a few homebrew SEMs kicking around too. But our hats are off to [Sam] for yet another acquisition and a great tutorial to boot.

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The Fab Lab Next Door: DIY Semiconductors

You think you’ve got it going on because you can wire up some eBay modules and make some LEDs blink, or because you designed your own PCB, or maybe even because you’re an RF wizard. Then you see that someone is fabricating semiconductors at home, and you realize there’s always another mountain to climb.

We were mesmerized when we first saw [Sam Zeloof]’s awesome garage-turned-semiconductor fab lab. He says he’s only been acquiring equipment since October of 2016, but in that short time he’s built quite an impressive array of gear; a spin-coating centrifuge, furnaces, tons of lab supplies and toxic chemicals, a turbomolecular vacuum pump, and a vacuum chamber that looks like something from a CERN lab.

[Sam]’s goal is to get set up for thin-film deposition so he can make integrated circuits, but with what he has on hand he’s managed to build a few diodes, some photovoltaic cells, and a couple of MOSFETs. He’s not growing silicon crystals and making his own wafers — yet — but relies on eBay to supply his wafers. The video below is a longish intro to [Sam]’s methods, and his YouTube channel has a video tour of his fab and a few videos on making specific devices.

[Sam] credits [Jeri Ellsworth]’s DIY semiconductor efforts, which we’ve covered before, as inspiration for his fab, and we’re going to be watching to see where he takes it from here. For now, though, we’d better boost the aspiration level of our future projects.

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