Espresso maker with added nixie flair

AI Powered Coffee Maker Knows A Bit Too Much About You

People keep warning that Skynet and the great robot uprising is not that far away, what with all this recent AI and machine-learning malarky getting all the attention lately. But we think going straight for a terminator robot army is not a very smart approach, not least due to a lack of subtlety. We think that it’s a much better bet to take over the world one home appliance at a time, and this AI Powered coffee maker might just well be part of that master plan.

Raspberry Pi Zero sitting atop the custom nixie tube driver PCB
PCB stackup with Pi Zero sat atop the driver / PSU PCBs

[Mark Smith] has taken a standard semi-auto espresso maker and jazzed it up a bit, with a sweet bar graph nixie tube the only obvious addition, at least from the front of the unit. Inside, a Raspberry Pi Zero sits atop his own nixie tube hat and associated power supply. The whole assembly is dropped into a 3D printed case and lives snuggled up to the water pump.

The Pi is running a web application written with the excellent Flask framework, and also an additional control application written in python. This allows the user to connect to the machine via Ethernet and see its status. The smarts are in the form of a simple self-grading machine learning algorithm, that takes a time series as an input (in this case when you take your shots of espresso) and after a few weeks of data, is able to make a reasonable prediction as to when you might want it in the future. It then automatically heats up in time for you to use the machine, when you usually do, then cools back down to save energy. No more pointless wandering around to see if the machine is hot enough yet – as you can just check the web page and see from the comfort of your desk.

But that’s not all [Mark] has done. He also improved the temperature control of the water boiler, and added an interlock that prevents the machine from producing a shot until the water temperature is just so. Water level is indicated by the glorious bar graph nixie tube, which also serves a few other user indication duties when appropriate. All in all a pretty sweet build, but we do add a word of caution: If your toaster starts making an unreasonable number of offers of toasted teacakes, give it a wide berth.

E-Ink Equipped Sourdough Starter Jar

One of the unexpected side effects of our this pandemic is a sudden growth in the global population of captive colonies of Lactobacillus bacteria and yeast. Also known as sourdough starters, they are usually found in jars with curious names written on top, living off a mixture of flour and water. They require close monitoring to keep them healthy and to determine when they are ready for baking. [Noah Feehan] has been working to instrument and automate the process for the past two years, and has created a high-tech jar to keep an eye on his sourdough starter.

For a sourdough starter to stay active, it must be kept within a certain temperature range, and performance is measured by how much the level inside the jar rises. Existing open source and commercial projects monitor these two parameters and transmit data out, but [Noah] wanted to include a few more features. The height of a sourdough starter rises due to the production of CO2, so he added an SCD-30 sensor module, which includes a temperature and humidity sensor. For level monitoring, an VL6180 time-of-flight sensor is mounted over a hole on top of the jar. [Noah] wanted to be able to see recent CO2 production and height stats right on the jar, a ESP32 module with onboard E-ink display was used. To draw air over the CO2 sensor at a constant rate, a small extraction fan was also added. Power is provided by a small LiPo battery. For long term logging, the data is sent over MQTT to a server running Mycodo environmental regulation software.

There are still several software improvements [Noah] would like to make, including battery life, user interface and alerts, but everything is open-source and available on GitHub, so feel free to jump in and build your own.

Flat-Pack Pasta: Like Ikea Furniture Without The Weird Wrench

When it comes to food packaging, there’s no bigger scam than potato chip bags, right? People complain about the air (nitrogen, actually) inside, but it’s there for a reason — nitrogen pushes out oxygen, so the chips live in a state of factory-fresh dormancy until you rip open the bag and release the gas. If you want flat-pack chips, there’s always those uniformly-shaped potato slurry wafers that come in a can. But even those usually manage to have a few broken ones.

On the other hand, no one complains about the extra space in their box of fusilli — that would be silly. But seriously, successfully shipping fragile foods requires either flat packing or a lot of extra space, especially if that food comes in a myriad of fun 3D shapes like pasta does. Everybody knows that 3D pasta is superior to flat pasta because it holds sauces so much better. The pasta must be kept intact!

The great thing about pasta as a food is that it’s simple to make, and it’s more nutritious than potato chips. Because of these factors, pasta is often served in extreme situations to large groups of people, like soldiers and the involuntarily displaced. But storing large quantities of shapely pasta takes up quite a bit of space. And because of all that necessary air, much of the packaging goes to waste.

So what if you could keep your plethora of pasta in, say, a filing cabinet? A research team led by the Morphing Matter Lab at Carnegie Mellon University have created a way to make flat-pack pasta that springs to life after a few minutes in boiling water.

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Iridescent Rainbow Chocolate, Just Add Diffraction Grating!

Chocolate plus diffraction grating equals rainbow chocolate

Here’s a great picture from [Jelly & Marshmallows] that shows off the wild effects of melted chocolate poured onto a diffraction grating. A diffraction grating is a kind of optical component whose micro-features act to disperse and scatter light. Diffraction gratings are available as thin plastic film with one side that is chock full of microscopic ridges, and the way light interacts with these ridges results in an iridescent, rainbow effect not unlike that seen on a CD or laserdisc.

It turns out that these micro-ridges can act as a mold, and pouring chocolate over a diffraction grating yields holo-chocolate. These photos from [Jelly & Marshmallows] show this effect off very nicely, but as cool as it is, we do notice that some of the letters seem a wee bit hit-or-miss in how well they picked up the diffraction grating pattern.

Fortunately, we know just what to suggest to take things to the next level. If you want to know more about how exactly this effect can be reliably accomplished, you’ll want to check out our earlier coverage of such delicious optics, which goes into all the nitty-gritty detail one could ever want about getting the best results with either melted sugar, or dark chocolate.

3D Printing Espresso Parts

Virtually any hobby has an endless series of rabbit holes to fall into, with new details to learn around every corner. This is true for beekeeping, microcontrollers, bicycles, and gardening (just to name a few), but those involved in the intricate world of coffee roasting and brewing turn this detail dial up to the max. There are countless methods of making coffee, all with devout followers and detractors alike, and each with its unique set of equipment. To explore one of those methods and brew a perfect espresso, [Eric] turned to his trusted 3D printer and some compressed gas cylinders.

An espresso machine uses high pressure to force hot water through finely ground coffee. This pressure is often developed with an electric pump, but there are manual espresso machines as well. These require expensive parts which can withstand high forces, so rather than build a heavy-duty machine with levers, [Eric] turned to compressed CO2 to deliver the high pressure needed.

To build the pressure/brew chamber, he 3D printed most of the parts with the exception of the metal basked which holds the coffee. The 3D printed cap needs to withstand around nine atmospheres of pressure so it’s reasonably thick, held down with four large bolts, and holds a small CO2 canister, relief valve, and pressure gauge.

To [Eric]’s fine tastes, the contraption makes an excellent cup of coffee at minimal cost compared to a traditional espresso machine. The expendable CO2 cartridges only add $0.15 to the total cost of the cup and for it’s simplicity and small size this is an excellent trade-off. He plans to improve on the design over time, and we can’t wait to see what he discovers. In the meantime, we’ll focus on making sure that our beans are of the highest quality so they’re ready for that next espresso.

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Keep Coffee Warm Through Induction Heating

Transformers have an obvious use for increasing or decreasing the voltage in AC systems, but they have many other esoteric uses as well. Electric motors and generators are functionally similar and can be modeled as if they are transformers, but the truly interesting applications are outside these industrial settings. Wireless charging is essentially an air-core transformer that allows power to flow through otherwise empty space, and induction cooking uses a similar principle to induce current flow in pots and pans. And, in this case, coffee mugs.

[Sajjad]’s project is an effort to keep his coffee warm while it sits on his desk. To build this special transformer he places his mug inside a coil of thick wire which is connected to a square wave generator. A capacitor sits in parallel with the coil of wire which allows the device to achieve resonance at a specific tuned frequency. Once at that frequency, the coil of wire efficiently generates eddy currents in the metal part of the coffee mug and heats the coffee with a minimum of input energy.

While this project doesn’t work for ceramic mugs, [Sajjad] does demonstrate it with a metal spoon in the mug. While it doesn’t heat up to levels high enough to melt solder, it works to keep coffee warm in a pinch if a metal mug isn’t available. He also plans to upgrade it so it takes up slightly less space on his desk. For now, though, it can easily keep his mug of coffee hot while it sits on his test bench.

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Smart Lid Spies On Sourdough Starter, Sends Data Wirelessly

[Justin Lam] created a wonderfully-detailed writeup of his Smart Sourdough Lid project, which was created out of a desire to get better data on the progress and health of his sourdough starters, and to do so more efficiently. The result is a tidy, one-piece lid that constantly measures temperature, humidity, and height of the starter in the jar. Data is sent wirelessly for analysis, but there is also a handy OLED display on the top of the lid that shows immediately useful data like how much the starter has peaked, and how much time has passed since it did so.

The PCB was optimized for size, and not designed with mounting in mind, so a hot-glued machine screw serves as a “button extender”. Issues like this can happen when enclosures are designed after the fact; it’s something to which we can all relate.

We really like how focused the design is, and the level of detail [Justin] goes into to explain his design decisions and describe how well they worked out. This isn’t [Justin]’s first kick at the can when it comes to getting data on his sourdough, after all. We remember his earlier work using computer vision to analyze sourdough starters, and he used what he learned to inform this new design; the smart lid is easier to use and handles data much more efficiently.

The project’s GitHub repository has all the information needed to build your own. The lid is ESP8266-based and integrates a VL6180X time-of-flight (ToF) distance sensor, DHT22 to sense temperature and humidity, and a small SSD1306 OLED display for data. A small custom PCB keeps the modules tidy, and a 3D-printed custom enclosure makes it one tidy package.

[Justin] also analyzes the results he obtained and talks about what they mean in the last part of his writeup, so if you’re into baking and interested in his findings, be sure to give that a look.