The Lost Art Of Steam Heating

We got pointed by [packrat] to a 2015 presentation by [Dan Holohan] on the history and art of steam heating systems. At the advent of central heating systems for entire buildings, steam was used instead of water or air for the transport medium. These systems were installed in landmark buildings including the Empire State Building, which still use them to this day.

A major advantage of steam-based heating system is that no pump is required: the steam will naturally rise up through the piping, condenses and returns to the origin. This can be implemented as a single pipe where condensation returns through the same pipe as the steam, or a two-pipe system where the condensate returns through its own pipe.

In the presentation, Dan walks us through his experiences working on many of these steam heating systems in major US buildings, the types of systems, fixes implemented by engineers long since dead and the particularities of maintaining these systems.

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Making PCBs With A Cutting Plotter

[LudwigLabs] is creating PCBs using copper foil and a cutting plotter (vinyl cutter). In this approach, it’s an additive process where instead of removing copper from a copper-clad board, the traces are cut out of copper foil and transferred to a solid backing surface (cardboard, fiberglass, etc.).

While similar to the use of copper tape laid out by hand, as covered by us last year, the big advantage of using a cutting plotter is that it allows one to create much more complicated traces similar to those you would expect to see on a factory-made PCB. Since cutting plotters translate a 2D design into very precise movements of the cutting blade, this allows for sharp angles and significantly thinner traces, allows designs from EDA software like KiCad or Altium to be quickly translated to physical boards.

Enterprising hackers might consider the possibility of using this approach to make two-sided, and even multi-layered boards. The copper is produced separately from the substrate which opens up the potential for using uncommon materials like glass or paper to host the circuits. The main limitations are the transferring of (very delicate) copper structures and creating vias without damaging the traces.

As a comparison with traditional PCB fab processes, the photo exposure and etching (or laser exposure and etching) process requires the creation of masks, UV exposing a board, etching, cleaning and so on. The simplicity of copper foil traces has led to many experimenting with this approach. Would you want to use this additive process, or are there refinements or alterations you would make?

Programming A RISC-V Softcore With Ada

We were contacted by [morbo] to let us know about a project on the AdaCore blog that concerns programming a PicoRV32 RISC-V softcore with Ada. The softcore itself runs on a Lattice ICE40LP8K-based TinyFPGA-BX FPGA board, which we have covered in the past.

The blog post describes how to use the Community edition of the GNAT Ada compiler to set up the development environment, before implementing a simple example project that controls a strip of WS28212b RGB LED modules. There are two push buttons changing the animation and brightness of the lights.

The source can be found at the author’s Github repository, and contains both the Ada source and the Verilog source for the PicoRV32 softcore. To build the project one needs the GNAT compiler, as well as the open-source iCE40 development tools to compile the softcore.

There is a video demonstrating the finished example project, that we’ve placed below the break.

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Tiny WiFi-Enabled ARM MCU for Tiny Projects

Ever since the ESP8266 WiFi-enabled microcontroller came on the scene, it seemed like suddenly everyone came up with WiFi-enabled projects. But the ESP8266 is not the only game in town! Reader [PuceBaboon] notified us of a new product released by Seeed Studios: the imaginatively called Air602 WiFi Development Board.

The core of this board is the tiny WinnerMicro W600 MCU, which integrates a 32-bit ARM Cortex M3 CPU, along with dual UARTs, I2C, SPI and I2S interfaces, as well as a real-time clock (RTC). Add to this hardware crypto, seven I/O pins (five broken out on the development board) and you have a very capable WiFi-enabled MCU which can be programmed using the usual ARM development tools (e.g. Keil) using the provided SDK.

The W600 module can be bought by itself, in all its diminutive 12 mm x 10 mm glory, for a mere $1.90 as of time of writing – without antenna – as noted in [PuceBaboon]’s thoughts on this MCU and the development board.