Hacking the Ionosphere, for Science

Imagine what it must have been like for the first human to witness an aurora. It took a while for our species to migrate from its equatorial birthplace to latitudes where auroras are common, so it was a fairly recent event geologically speaking. Still, that first time seeing the shimmers and ribbons playing across a sky yet to be marred by light pollution must have been terrifying and thrilling, and like other displays of nature’s power, it probably fueled stories of gods and demons. The myths and legends born from ignorance of what an aurora actually represents seem quaint to most of us, but it was as good a model as our ancestors needed to explain the world around them.

Our understanding of auroras needs to be a lot deeper, though, because we now know that they are not only a beautiful atmospheric phenomenon but also a critical component in the colossal electromagnetic system formed by our planet and our star. Understanding how it works is key to everything from long-distance communication to keeping satellites in orbit to long-term weather predictions.

But how exactly does one study an aurora? Something that’s so out of reach and so evanescent seems like it would be hard to study. While it’s not exactly easy science to do, it is possible to directly study auroras, and it involves some interesting technology that actually changes them, somehow making the nocturnal light show even more beautiful.

Continue reading “Hacking the Ionosphere, for Science”

Cook Up Your Own High-Temperature Superconductors

It looks more like a charcoal briquette than anything, but the black brittle thing at the bottom of [Ben Krasnow]’s crucible is actually a superconducting ceramic that can levitate magnets when it’s sitting in liquid nitrogen. And with [Ben]’s help, you can make some too.

Superconductors that can work at the relatively high temperature of liquid nitrogen instead of ultracold liquid helium are pretty easy to come by commercially, so if you’re looking to just float a few magnets, it would be a lot easier to just hit eBay. But getting there is half the fun, and from the look of the energetic reaction in the video below, [Ben] had some fun with this. The superconductor in question here is a mix of yttrium, barium, and copper oxide that goes by the merciful acronym YBCO.

The easy way to make YBCO involves multiple rounds of pulverizing yttrium oxide, barium chloride carbonate, and copper oxide together and heating them in a furnace. That works, sort of, but [Ben] wanted more, so he performed a pyrophoric reaction instead. By boiling down an aqueous solution of the three components, a thick sludge results that eventually self-ignites in a spectacular way. The YBCO residue is cooked in a kiln with oxygen blowing over it, and the resulting puck has all the magical properties of superconductors. There’s a lot of detail in the video, and the experiments [Ben] does with his YBCO are pretty fascinating too.

Things are always interesting in [Ben Krasnow]’s life, and there seem to be few areas he’s not interested in. Of course we’ve seen his DIY CAT scanner, his ruby laser, and recently, his homemade photochromic glass.

Continue reading “Cook Up Your Own High-Temperature Superconductors”

How to Measure the Dielectric Constant for DIY Capacitors

Every now and then you need to make your own capacitor. That includes choosing a dielectric for it, the insulating material that goes between the plates. One dielectric material that I use a lot is paraffin wax which can be found in art stores and is normally used for making candles. Another is resin, the easiest to find being automotive resin used for automotive body repairs.

The problem is that you sometimes need to do the calculations for the capacitor dimensions ahead of time, rather than just throwing something together. And that means you need to know the dielectric constant of the dielectric material. That’s something that the manufacturer of the paraffin wax that makes it for art stores won’t know, nor will the manufacturers of automotive body repair resin. The intended customers just don’t care.

It’s therefore left up to you to measure the dielectric constant yourself, and here I’ll talk about the method I use for doing that.

Continue reading “How to Measure the Dielectric Constant for DIY Capacitors”

Homemade Capacitors Of A Mad Scientist

Once upon a time I was a real mad scientist. I was into non-conventional propulsion with the idea of somehow interacting with the quantum vacuum fluctuations, the zero point energy field. I was into it despite having only a vague understanding of what that was and without regard for how unlikely or impossible anyone said it was to interact with on a macro scale. But we all had to come from somewhere, and that was my introduction to the world of high voltages and homemade capacitors.

And along the way I made some pretty interesting, or different, capacitors which I’ll talk about here.

Large Wax Cylindrical Capacitor

As the photos show, this capacitor is fairly large, appearing like a thick chunk of paraffin wax sandwiched between two wood disks. Inside, the lead wires go to two aluminum flashing disks that are the capacitor plates spaced 2.5cm (1 inch) apart. But in between them the dielectric consists of seven more aluminum flashing disks separated by plain cotton sheets immersed in more paraffin wax. See, I told you these capacitors were different.

I won’t go into the reasoning behind the construction — it was all shot-in-the-dark ideas, backed by hope, unicorn hairs, and practically no theory. The interesting thing here was the experiment itself. It worked!

I sat the capacitor on top of a tall 4″ diameter ABS pipe which in turn sat on a digital scale on the floor. High voltage in the tens of kilovolts was put across the capacitor through thickly insulated wires. The power supply contained a flyback transformer and Cockcroft-Walton voltage multiplier at the HV side. As I dialed up the voltage, the scale showed a reducing weight. I had weight-loss!

But after a few hours of reversing polarities and flipping the capacitor the other way around and taking plenty of notes, I found the cause. The weight-loss happened only when the feed wires were oriented with the top one feeding downward as shown in the diagram, but there was no weight change when the top wire was oriented horizontally. I’d seen high voltage wires moving before and here it was again, producing what looked like weight-loss on the scale.

But that’s only one of the interesting capacitors I’ve made. After the break we get into gravitators, polysulfide and even barium titanate.

Continue reading “Homemade Capacitors Of A Mad Scientist”

Lise Meitner: A Physicist who Never Lost her Humanity

It is said that the first casualty of war is the truth, and few wars have demonstrated that more than World War II. One scientist, whose insights would make the atomic age possible, would learn a harsh lesson at the outset of the war about how scientific truth can easily be trumped by politics and bigotry.

Lise Meitner was born into a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna in 1878. Her father, a lawyer and chess master, took the unusual step of encouraging his daughter’s education. In a time when women were not allowed to attend institutions of higher learning, Lise was able to pursue her interest in physics with a private education funded by her father. His continued support, both emotional and financial, would prove important throughout Lise’s early career. Continue reading “Lise Meitner: A Physicist who Never Lost her Humanity”