Sharpies and Glue Sticks Fight the Gummy Metal Machining Blues

“Gummy” might not be an adjective that springs to mind when describing metals, but anyone who has had the flutes of a drill bit or end mill jammed with aluminum will tell you that certain metals do indeed behave in unhelpful ways. But a new research paper seeks to shed light on the gummy metal phenomenon, and may just have machinists stocking up on office supplies.

It’s a bit counterintuitive that harder metals like steel are often easier to cut than softer metals; especially aluminum but also copper, nickel alloys, and some stainless steel alloys. But it happens, and [Srinivasan Chandrasekar] and his colleagues at Purdue University wanted to find out why, and what can be done about it. So the first job was to get up close and personal with the interface between a cutting tool and metal stock, to observe the dynamics of cutting. In a fascinating bit of video, they saw that softer metals tend to fold in sinuous patterns rather than breaking on defined shear planes.

Source: American Physical Society.

Having previously noted that cutting through Dykem, a common machinist’s marking fluid, changes chip formation in soft metals, the researchers tested everything from Sharpies to adhesive tape and even correction fluid, and found that they all helped to reduce the gumming action to some degree. Under their microscope they can clearly see that chips form differently once the cutting edge hits the treated surface, tending to act more brittle and ejecting rather than folding. They also noted a marked decrease in cutting force for the treated metal, and much-improved surface finish to boot.

Will Sharpies and glue sticks enter the book of old machinist’s tricks like gauge-block wringing? Only time will tell. But for now, this is a pretty fascinating bit of research that you might be able to put to the test in your shop. Let us know what you find in the comments.

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Harley-Hardened Wire Helps High-Gain Antenna Hack

What does a Harley-Davidson motorcycle have to do with building antennas? Absolutely nothing, unless you happen to have one and need to work-harden copper wire to build a collinear antenna for LoRa.

We’ll explain. Never being one to settle, [Andreas Spiess] needed a better antenna for his LoRa experiments. Looking for high gain and an omnidirectional pattern, he bought a commercial colinear antenna, which is a wire with precisely spaced loops that acts like a stack of dipoles. Sadly, in a head-to-head test [Andreas] found that the commercial antenna was no better than lower gain antennas in terms of range, and so he decided to roll his own.

Copper wire is a great material for antennas since it can be easily formed without special tools and it solders like a champ. But the stuff you get at the home center is nowhere near stiff enough for a free-standing vertical whip. This is where the Harley came in: [Andreas] used his Hog to stretch out the 1.75-mm diameter (a little bigger than #14 AWG) copper wire. Not only did the work-hardening stiffen the wire, it reduced its diameter to the 1.4 mm needed for the antenna design. His vector network analyzer told him that ground-plane elements and a little fiddling with the loop diameter were needed to get the antenna to resonate at 868 MHz, but in the end it looks like the antenna is on track to deliver 5-dBi of gain.

Of course there are plenty of other ways to stretch out a wire — you could just stretch it out with hanging weights, or even with a go-kart motor-powered winch if you’re ambitious. But if you’ve got a bike like that, why not flaunt it?

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DIY Tube Oven Brings the Heat to Homebrew Semiconductor Fab

Specialized processes require specialized tools and instruments, and processes don’t get much more specialized than the making of semiconductors. There’s a huge industry devoted to making the equipment needed for semiconductor fabrication plants, but most of it is fabulously expensive and out of reach to the home gamer. Besides, where’s the fun in buying when you can build your own fab lab stuff, like this DIY tube oven?

A tube oven isn’t much more complicated than it sounds — it’s just a tube that gets hot. Really, really hot — [Nixie] is shooting for 1,200 °C. Not just any materials will do for such an oven, of course, and this one is built out of blocks of fused alumina ceramic. The cavity for the tube was machined with a hole saw and a homebrew jig that keeps everything aligned; at first we wondered why he didn’t use his lathe, but then we realized that chucking a brittle block of ceramic would probably not end well. A smaller hole saw was used to make trenches for the Kanthal heating element and the whole thing was put in a custom stainless enclosure. A second post covers the control electronics and test runs up to 1,000°C, which ends up looking a little like the Eye of Sauron.

We’ve been following [Nixie]’s home semiconductor fab buildout for a while now, starting with a sputtering rig for thin-film deposition. It’s been interesting to watch the progress, and we’re eager to see where this all leads.

Fail of the Week: When Good Foundries Go Bad

Like many of us, [Tony] was entranced by the idea of casting metal, and set about building the tools he’d need to melt aluminum for lost-PLA casting. Little did he know that he was about to exceed the limits of his system and melt a hole in his patio.

[Tony]’s tale of woe begins innocently enough, and where it usually begins for wannabe metal casters: with [The King of Random]’s homemade foundry-in-a-bucket. It’s just a steel pail with a homebrew refractory lining poured in place, with a hole near the bottom to act as a nozzle for forced air, or tuyère. [Tony]’s build followed the plans pretty faithfully, but lacking the spent fire extinguisher [The King] used for a crucible in the original build, he improvised and used the bottom of an old propane cylinder. A test firing with barbecue charcoal sort of worked, but it was clear that more heat was needed. So [Tony] got hold of some fine Welsh anthracite coal, which is where the fun began. With the extra heat, the foundry became a mini-blast furnace that melted the thin steel crucible, dumping the molten aluminum into the raging coal fire. The video below shows the near catastrophe, and we hope that once [Tony] changed his pants, he hustled off to buy a cheap graphite or ceramic crucible for the next firing.

All kidding aside, this is a vivid reminder of the stakes when something unexpected (or entirely predictable) goes wrong, and the need to be prepared to deal with it. A bucket of dry sand to smother a fire might be a good idea, and protective clothing is a must. And it pays to manage your work area to minimize potential collateral damage, too — we doubt that patio will ever be the same again.

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Getting the Lead Out of Lithium Battery Recycling

When that fateful morning comes that your car no longer roars to life with a quick twist of the key, but rather groans its displeasure at the sad state of your ride’s electrical system, your course is clear: you need a new battery. Whether you do it yourself or – perish the thought – farm out the job to someone else, the end result is the same. You get a spanking new lead-acid battery, and the old one is whisked away to be ground up and turned into a new battery in a nearly perfect closed loop system.

Contrast this to what happens to the battery in your laptop when it finally gives up the ghost. Some of us will pop the pack open, find the likely one bad cell, and either fix the pack or repurpose the good cells. But most dead lithium-based battery packs are dropped in the regular trash, or placed in blue recycling bins with the best of intentions but generally end up in the landfill anyway.

Why the difference between lead and lithium batteries? What about these two seemingly similar technologies dictates why one battery can have 98% of its material recycled, while the other is cheaper to just toss? And what are the implications down the road, when battery packs from electric vehicles start to enter the waste stream in bulk?

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Acrylic Stencils Help with Component Placement for SMD Assembly

Surface mount is where the action is in the world of DIY PCBs, and deservedly so. SMDs are so much smaller than through-hole components, and fewer holes to drill make surface-mount PCBs easier to manufacture. Reflow soldering is even a snap now thanks to DIY ovens and solder stencils you can get when you order your boards.

So what’s the point of adding another stencil to the surface-mount process? These component placement stencils are [James Bowman]’s solution for speeding up assembly of boards in production runs too small to justify a pick and place robot. [James] finds that placing small components like discrete resistors and caps easy, but struggles with the placement of the larger components, like QFN packaged microcontrollers. Getting such packages lined up exactly is hard when the leads are underneath, and he found repositioning led to smeared solder paste. His acrylic stencils, which are laser-cut from SVGs derived directly from the Eagle files with a script he provides, sandwich the prepped board and let him just drop the big packages into their holes. The acrylic pops off after placement, leaving the components stuck to the solder paste and ready for their trip to the Easy Bake.

[James] claims it really speeds up hand placement in his biggish runs, and it’s a whole lot cheaper than a dedicated robot. But as slick as we think this idea is, a DIY pick and place is still really sweet.

IoT Solar Pool Heating

A backyard swimming pool can be a great place to take a refreshing dip on a summer’s day. It can also be a place to freeze your giblets off if the sun has been hiding for even a few hours. That can make pools an iffy proposition unless they’re heated, and that starts to get really expensive in terms of upfront costs and ongoing charges for fuel or power. Unless you put the sun and the IoT to work for pool-heating needs.

Preferences vary, of course, but [Martin Harizanov] and his family clearly like their swims on the warm side. With nobody using the pool when it was below 25°C (77°F), [Martin] picked up a few bits to harness the sun to warm the water. Loops of PVC lawn irrigation tubing were tossed onto a shed roof with a favorable solar aspect and connected to the pool with a length of garden hose. The black thin-wall tubing is perfect for capturing the sun’s energy, and 200 meters of the stuff can really heat things up fast. A small pump is controlled by a microcontroller — it’s not explicitly stated but we suspect it’s a Raspberry Pi — with a pair of temperature sensors to sample the water in the pool and in the heating loop. Metrics are gathered and logged by Emoncms, an open source energy monitoring app. [Martin] says he’s harvesting about 10 kW from the sun on a good day, and that the pool water in the heating loop has gotten up to a steamy 55°C (131°F) without any other energy inputs other than the pump.

Plenty of others have made the leap to solar for pool season extension, with designs from the simple to the more complex. And if you live where the sun doesn’t shine, there’s always a compost water heater.