Mechanisms: Solenoids

Since humans first starting playing with electricity, we’ve proven ourselves pretty clever at finding ways to harness that power and turn it into motion. Electric motors of every type move the world, but they are far from the only way to put electricity into motion. When you want continuous rotation, a motor is the way to go. But for simpler on and off applications, where fine control of position is not critical, a solenoid is more like what you need. These electromagnetic devices are found everywhere and they’re next in our series on useful mechanisms.

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Friday Hack Chat: Making Programming Easier

There is a long history of graphical programming languages. Some people don’t like to code, and for them, graphical programming languages replace semicolons and brackets with easy-to-understand boxes and wires.

This Friday, we’re going to be talking about graphical programming languages with [Boian Mitov]. He’s a software developer, founder of Mitov Software, and the creator of Visuino, a graphical programming language for the embedded domain. He specialized in video, audio, DSP, DAQ, industrial automation, communications, computer vision, artificial intelligence, as well as parallel and distributed computing. [Boian] is the author of the OpenWire open source technology, the IGDI+ open source library, the VideoLab, SignalLab, AudioLab, PlotLab, InstrumentLab, VisionLab, IntelligenceLab, AnimationLab, LogicLab, CommunicationLab, and ControlLab libraries, OpenWire Studio, Visuino, and author of the “VCL for Visual C++” technology.

For this Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking about ways to make programming microcontrollers easier. The focus of this discussion is Visuino, a graphical programming environment. Visuino allows anyone to program an Arduino, Teensy, or an ESP simply by connecting wires and choosing some logic. Think of it as a step above the programming environment that came with the Lego Mindstorms, Scratch, or whatever else MIT was coming out with in the early ‘aughts.

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Hack Chat Event Page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.join-hack-chat

Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hack Chat group messaging. This week is just like any other, and we’ll be gathering ’round our video terminals at noon, Pacific, on Friday, May 25th.  Here’s a clock counting down the time until the Hack Chat starts.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Plant Biology is a Gateway

Too many college students have been subject to teachers’ aids who think they are too clever to be stuck teaching mere underclassmen. For that reason, [The Thought Emporium] is important because he approaches learning with gusto and is always ready to learn something new himself and teach anyone who wants to learn. When he released a video about staining and observing plant samples, he avoided the biggest pitfalls often seen in college or high school labs. Instead of calling out the steps by rote, he walks us through them with useful camera angles and close-ups. Rather than just pointing at a bottle and saying, “the blue one,” he tells us what is inside and why it is essential. Instead of telling us precisely what we need to see to get a passing grade, he lets our minds wonder about what we might see and shows us examples that make the experiment seem exciting. The video can also be seen below the break.

The process of staining can be found in a biology textbook, and some people learn best by reading, but we haven’t read a manual that makes a rudimentary lab seem like the wardrobe to Narnia, so he gets credit for that. Admittedly, you have to handle a wicked sharp razor, and the chance of failure is never zero. In fact, he will tell you, the opportunities to fail are everywhere. The road to science isn’t freshly paved, it needs pavers.

If a biology lab isn’t in your personal budget, a hackerspace may have one or need one. If you are wondering where you’ve heard [The Thought Emporium]’s voice before, it is because he is fighting lactose intolerance like a hacker.

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SpaceX’s Next Giant Leap: Second Stage Recovery

With the successful launch of the Bangabandhu-1 satellite on May 11th, the final version of the Falcon 9 rocket has finally become operational. Referred to as the “Block 5”, this version of the rocket is geared specifically towards reuse. The lessons learned from the recovery and reflight of earlier builds of the F9 have culminated into rocket that SpaceX hopes can go from recovery to its next flight in as few as 24 hours. If any rocket will make good on the dream of spaceflight becoming as routine as air travel, it’s going to be the Falcon 9 Block 5.

While there might still be minor tweaks and improvements made to Block 5 over the coming years, it’s safe to say that first stage recovery of the Falcon 9 has been all but perfected. What was once the fodder of campy science fiction, rockets propulsively lowering themselves down from the sky and coming to rest on spindly landing legs that popped out of the sides, is now a reality. More importantly, not only is SpaceX able to bring the towering first stage back from space reliably, they’re able to refuel it, inspect it, and send it back up without having to build a new one for each mission.

But as incredible a technical accomplishment as this is, SpaceX still isn’t recovering the entire Falcon 9 rocket. At best, they have accomplished the same type of partial reusability that the Space Shuttle demonstrated on its first flight all the way back in 1981. Granted they are doing it much faster and cheaper than it was done on the Shuttle, but it still goes against the classic airplane analogy: if you had to replace a huge chunk of the airliner every time it landed, commercial air travel would be completely impractical.

SpaceX has already started experimenting with recovering and reusing the payload fairings of the Falcon 9, and while they haven’t pulled it off yet, they’ll probably get there. That leaves only one piece of the Falcon 9 unaccounted for: the second stage. Bringing the second stage back to Earth in one piece might well be the most challenging aspect of developing the Falcon 9. But if SpaceX can do it, then they’ll have truly developed humanity’s first fully reusable rocket, capable of delivering payloads to space for little more than the cost of fuel.

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Blowing Rings With Cannons, Fogs, And Lasers

In today’s healthy lifestyle oriented world, blowing smoke rings won’t impress too many people anymore. Unless of course you are [NightHawkInLight] and blow them with a vortex cannon and add lasers for visual effects. Although, his initial motivation was to build a device that could shoot lost frisbees out off the trees in his backyard disc golf course, and as avid enthusiast of shooting things through the air using a propane torch, he opted for a vortex cannon to avoid the risk of injuries shooting a projectile may cause.

With safety in mind from the beginning, [NightHawkInLight] chose to build the cannon in ways that won’t expose him or people following his footsteps to any toxic fumes. The barrel is formed by securing a roll of terrace board and simply pulling it into a cone. A series of PVC pipes and adapters build the combustion chamber that fits the terrace board barrel on its one end, and the propane torch nozzle on its other end. For easier aim and stability, he also adds a tripod mount.

Since air vortices are, well, air, and therefore not visible by themselves, they don’t offer the most visual excitement. [NightHawkInLight] solved this with a fog machine attached to the barrel, and a laser line module, which you can see for yourself in his build video after the break. In a previous vortex cannon project we could also see a more outdoorsy approach to add visibility to it.
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Automatic I2C Address Allocation For Daisy-Chained Sensors

Many readers will be familiar with interfacing I2C peripherals. A serial line joins a string of individual I2C devices, and each of the devices has its own address on that line. In most cases when connecting a single device or multiple different ones there is no problem in ensuring that they have different addresses.

What happens though when multiple identical devices share an I2C bus? This was the problem facing [Sam Evans] at Mindtribe, and his solution is both elegant and simple. The temperature sensors he was using across multiple identical boards have three pins upon which can be set a binary address, and his challenge was to differentiate between them without the manufacturing overhead of a set of DIP switches, jumpers, or individual pull-up resistors. Through a clever combination of sense lines between the boards he was able to create a system in which the address would be set depending upon whether the board had a neighbour on one side, the other, or both. A particularly clever hack allows two side-by-side boards that have two neighbours to alternate their least significant bit, allowing four identical boards each with two sensors to be daisy-chained for a total of eight sensors with automatic address allocation.

We aren’t told what the product was in this case, however it’s irrelevant. This is a hardware hack in its purest sense, one of those which readers will take note of and remember when it is their turn to deal with a well-populated I2C bus. Of course, if this method doesn’t appeal, you can always try an LTC4316.

This Computer Is As Quiet As The Mouse

[Tim aka tp69] built a completely silent desktop computer. It can’t be heard – at all. The average desktop will have several fans whirring inside – cooling the CPU, GPU, SMPS, and probably one more for enclosure circulation – all of which end up making quite a racket, decibel wise. Liquid cooling might help make it quieter, but the pump would still be a source of noise. To completely eliminate noise, you have to get rid of all the rotating / moving parts and use passive cooling.

[Tim]’s computer is built from standard, off-the-shelf parts but what’s interesting for us is the detailed build log. Knowing what goes inside such a build, the decisions required while choosing the parts and the various gotchas that you need to be aware of, all make it an engaging read.

It all starts with a cubic aluminum chassis designed to hold a mini-ITX motherboard. The top and side walls are essentially huge extruded heat sinks designed to efficiently carry heat away from inside the case. The heat is extracted and channeled away to the side panels via heat sinks embedded with sealed copper tubing filled with coolant fluid. Every part, from the motherboard onwards, needs to be selected to fit within the mechanical and thermal constraints of the enclosure. Using an upgrade kit available as an enclosure accessory allows [Tim] to use CPUs rated for a power dissipation of almost 100 W. This not only lets him narrow down his choice of motherboards, but also provides enough overhead for future upgrades. The GPU gets a similar heat extractor kit in exchange for the fan cooling assembly. A fanless power supply, selected for its power capacity as well as high-efficiency even under low loads, keeps the computer humming quietly, figuratively.

Once the computer was up and running, he spent some time analysing the thermal profile of his system to check if it was really worth all the effort. The numbers and charts look very promising. At 100% load, the AMD Ryzen 5 1600 CPU levelled off at 60 ºC (40 ºC above ambient) without any performance effect. And the outer enclosure temperature was 42 ºC — warm, but not dangerous. Of course, performance hinges around “ambient temperature”, so you have to start getting careful when that goes up.

Getting such silence comes at a price – some may consider it quite steep. [Tim] spent about A$3000 building this whole system, thanks in part due to high GPU prices because of demand from bitcoin mining. But cost is a relative measure. He’s spent less on this system compared to several of his earlier projects and it let’s him enjoy the sounds of nature instead of whiny cooling fans. Some would suggest a pair of ear buds would have been a super cheap solution, but he wanted a quiet computer, not something to cancel out every other sound in his surroundings.