Figuring out what the Earth’s climate is going to do at any given point is a difficult task. To know how it will react to given events, you need to know what you’re working with. This requires an accurate model of everything from ocean currents to atmospheric heat absorption and the chemical and literal behavior of everything from cattle to humans to trees.
Humans are very good at anthropomorphising things. That is, giving them human characteristics, like ourselves. We do it with animals—see just about any cartoon—and we even do it with our own planet—see Mother Nature. But we often extend that courtesy even further, giving names to our cars and putting faces on our computers as well.
When thoughts turn to the modernization and decarbonization of our transportation infrastructure, one imagines it to be dominated by exotic materials. EV motors and wind turbine generators need magnets made with rare earth metals (which turn out to be not all that rare), batteries for cars and grid storage need lithium and cobalt, and of course an abundance of extremely pure silicon is needed to provide the computational power that makes everything work. Throw in healthy pinches of graphene, carbon fiber composites and ceramics, and minerals like molybdenum, and the recipe starts looking pretty exotic.
As necessary as they are, all these exotic materials are worthless without a foundation of more familiar materials, ones that humans have been extracting and exploiting for eons. Mine all the neodymium you want, but without materials like copper for motor and generator windings, your EV is going nowhere and wind turbines are just big lawn ornaments. But just as important is iron, specifically as the alloy steel, which not only forms the structural elements of nearly everything mechanical but also appears in the stators and rotors of motors and generators, as well as the cores of the giant transformers that the electrical grid is built from.
Not just any steel will do for electrical use, though; special formulations, collectively known as electrical steel, are needed to build these electromagnetic devices. Electrical steel is simple in concept but complex in detail, and has become absolutely vital to the functioning of modern society. So it pays to take a look at what electrical steel is and how it works, and why we’re going nowhere without it.
About two decades ago there was a quiet revolution in electronics which went unnoticed by many, but which overturned a hundred years of accepted practice. You’d have noticed it if you had a mobile phone, the charger for your Nokia dumbphone around the year 2000 would have been a weighty device, while the one for your feature phone five years later would have been about the same size but relatively light as a feather. The electronics industry abandoned the mains transformer from their wall wart power supplies and other places in favour of the much lighter and efficient switch mode power supply. Small mains transformers which had been ubiquitous in electronics projects for many years, slowly followed suit.
Coils Of Wire, Doing Magic With Electrons
A transformer works through transferring alternating electrical current into magnetic flux by means of a coil of wire, and then converting the flux back to electric current in a second coil. The flux is channeled through a ferromagnetic transformer core made of iron in the case of a mains transformer, and the ratio of input voltage to output voltage is the same as the turns ratio between the two. They provide a safe isolation between their two sides, and in the case of a mains transformer they often have a voltage regulating function as their core material is selected to saturate should the input voltage become too high. The efficiency of a transformer depends on a range of factors including its core material and the frequency of operation, with transformer size decreasing with frequency as efficiency increases.
When energy efficiency rules were introduced over recent decades they would signal the demise of the mains transformer, as the greater efficiency of a switch-mode supply became the easiest way to achieve the energy savings. In a sense the mains transformer never went away, as it morphed into the small ferrite-cored part running at a higher frequency in the switch-mode circuitry, but it’s fair to say that the iron-cored transformers of old are now a rare sight. Does this matter? It’s time to unpack some of the issues surrounding a small power supply. Continue reading “Parts We Miss: The Mains Transformer”→
Last week I was sitting in a waiting room when the news came across my phone that Ingenuity, the helicopter that NASA put on Mars three years ago, would fly no more. The news hit me hard, and I moaned when I saw the headline; my wife, sitting next to me, thought for sure that my utterance meant someone had died. While she wasn’t quite right, she wasn’t wrong either, at least in my mind.
As soon as I got back to my desk I wrote up a short article on the end of Ingenuity‘s tenure as the only off-Earth flying machine — we like to have our readers hear news like this from Hackaday first if at all possible. To my surprise, a fair number of the comments that the article generated seemed to decry the anthropomorphization of technology in general and Ingenuity in particular, with undue harshness directed at what some deemed the overly emotional response by some of the NASA/JPL team members.
Granted, some of the goodbyes in that video are a little cringe, but still, as someone who seems to easily and eagerly form attachments to technology, the disdain for an emotional response to the loss of Ingenuity perplexed me. That got me thinking about what role anthropomorphization might play in our relationship with technology, and see if there’s maybe a reason — or at least a plausible excuse — for my emotional response to the demise of a machine.
When we first developed telescopes, we started using them on the ground. Humanity was yet to master powered flight, you see, to say nothing of going beyond into space. As technology developed, we realized that putting a telescope up on a satellite might be useful, since it would get rid of all that horrible distortion from that pesky old atmosphere. We also developed radio telescopes, when we realized there were electromagnetic signals beyond visible light that were of great interest to us.
Now, NASA’s dreaming even bigger. What if it could build a big radio telescope up on the Moon?
As I walked into the huge high bay that was to be my part-time office for the next couple of years, I was greeted by all manner of abandoned equipment haphazardly scattered around the room. As I later learned, this place was a graveyard for old research projects, cast aside to be later gutted for parts or forgotten entirely. This was my first day on the job as a co-op student at the Georgia Tech Engineering Experiment Station (EES, since renamed to GTRI). The engineer who gave me the orientation tour that day pointed to a dusty electronic rack in one corner of the room. Steve said my job would be to bring that old minicomputer back to life. Once running, I would operate it as directed by the radar researchers and scientists in our group. Thus began a journey that resulted in an Arctic adventure two years later.
The computer in question was a Data General (DG) mini computer. DG was founded by former Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) employees in the 1960s. They introduced the 16-bit Nova computer in 1969 to compete with DEC’s PDP-8. I was gawking at a fully-equipped Nova 2 system which had been introduced in 1975. This machine and its accessories occupied two full racks, with an adjacent printer and a table with a terminal and pen plotter. There was little to no documentation. Just to turn it on, I had to pester engineers until I found one who could teach me the necessary front-panel switch incantation to boot it up. Continue reading “Arctic Adventures With A Data General Nova II — The Equipment”→