Ask Hackaday: Experiences With Capacitor Failure

Regular readers of Hackaday are intimately knowledgeable about old electronics, and whether it’s about that old oscilloscope sitting in the pile of other oscilloscopes, or the very rare vintage computer made in a Soviet bloc country, someone somewhere knows how to fix it. One of the biggest problems with these old electronics are capacitors. If it isn’t the battery that’s gone dead and leaked all over, it’s the caps that are either out of spec or have already exploded.

These machines can be brought back from the dead, and in recent months and years we’ve seen an uptick in the number of restomods hitting the Hackaday tip line. If you have a soldering iron and the patience to do so, any machine can be brought back from the grave.

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Components Cut in Half Reveal their Inner Beauty

We rarely take a moment to consider the beauty of the components we use in electronic designs. Too often they are simply commodities, bought in bulk on reels or in bags, stashed in a drawer until they’re needed, and then unceremoniously soldered to a board. Granted, little scraps of black plastic with silver leads don’t exactly deserve paeans sung to their great beauty – at least not until you cut them in half to reveal the beauty within.

We’ve seen a little of what [Tube Time] has accomplished here; recall this lapped-down surface-mount inductor that [electronupdate] did a while back. The current work is more extensive and probably somewhat easier to accomplish because [TubeTime] focused mainly on larger through-hole components such as resistors and capacitors. It’s not clear how the sections were created, but it is clear that extreme care was taken to lap down the components with enough precision that the inner structures are clearly visible, and indeed, carefully enough that some, most notably the LED, still actually work. For our money, though, the best looking cross-sections are the capacitors, especially the electrolytic, for which [Tube Time] thoughtfully provides both radial and axial sections. The little inductor is pretty cool too. Some of the component diagrams are annotated, too, which makes for fascinating reading.

Honestly, we could look at stuff like this all day.

Thanks to [Stuart Rogers] for the tip.

Tesla Eyes Ultracapacitor Future With Maxwell Acquisition

As reported by Bloomberg, Tesla has acquired the innovative energy storage company Maxwell Technologies for $218 Million. The move is a direct departure from Tesla’s current energy storage requirements; instead of relying on lithium battery technology, this acquisition could signal a change to capacitor technology.

The key selling point of capacitors, either of the super- or ultra- variety, is the much shorter charge and discharge rates. Where a supercapacitor can be used to weld metal by simply shorting the terminals (don’t do that, by the way), battery technology hasn’t yet caught up. You can only charge batteries at a specific rate, and you can only discharge them at a specific rate. The acquisition of an ultracapacitor manufacturer opens the possibility of these powerhouses finding their way into electric vehicles.

While there is a single problem with super- and ultra-capacitors — the sheer volume and the fact that a module of ultracaps will hold much less energy than a module of batteries of the same size — the best guess is that Tesla won’t be replacing all their batteries with caps in the short-term. Analysts think that future Teslas may feature a ‘co-battery’ of sorts, allowing for fast charging and discharging through a series of ultracapacitors, with the main energy storage in the car still being the lithium battery modules. This will be especially useful for regenerative braking, as slowing down a three thousand pound vehicle produces a lot of energy, and Tesla’s current battery technology can’t soak all of it up.

Energy Sipping Neodymium Sphere Keeps on Spinning

At this point we’re sure you are aware, but around these parts we don’t deduct points for projects which we can’t immediately see a practical application for. We don’t make it our business to say what is and isn’t worth your time as an individual hacker. If you got a kick out of it, great. Learned something? Even better. If you did both of those things and took the time to document it, well that’s precisely the business we’re in.

So when [Science Toolbar] sent in this project which documents the construction of an exceptionally energy efficient spinning neodymium sphere, we knew it was our kind of thing. In the documentation it’s referred to as a motor, though it doesn’t appear to have the torque to do any useful work. But still, if it can spin continuously off of the power provided by a calculator-style photovoltaic cell, it’s still a neat trick.

But how does it work? It starts by cracking open one of those little solar powered toys; the ones that wave or dance around as soon as any light hits the panel in their base. As [Science Toolbar] explains, inside these seemingly magical little gadgets is a capacitor and the classic black epoxy blob that contains an oscillator circuit. A charge is built up in the capacitor and dumped into a coil at roughly 1 Hz, which provides just enough of a push to get the mechanism going.

In the video after the break, [Science Toolbar] demonstrates how you can take those internals and pair it with a much larger coil. Rather than prompting a little sunflower or hula girl to do its thing, the coil in this version provides the motive force for getting the neodymium sphere spinning. To help things along, they’re even using a junk box zero friction magnetic bearing made up of a wood screw and a magnetized screwdriver tip.

It’s an interesting example of how a tiny charge can be built up over time, and with a nice enough enclosure this will make for a pretty cool desk toy. We’ve previously seen teardowns of similar toys, which revealed a surprising amount of complexity inside that little epoxy blob. No word on whether or not the version [Science Toolbar] cannibalized was quite so clever, however.

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DIY Tuning Capacitors from Washers and 3D-Printed Parts

The inside of classic radios holds wonders that the sterile chips and SMD components of today’s circuits can’t hold a candle to. Chunky resistors and capacitors, vacuum tubes with cathodes aglow, and seemingly free-form loops of wire forming inductors will all likely make an appearance. But the most fascinating bit of any old radio was connected to the tuning knob: the big variable capacitor with its interdigitating metal plates. Watching one at work, with its plates evenly and finely spaced, is still a joy to behold.

In an attempt to recapture a little of that magic, [Jeremy S. Cook] came up with this home-brew variable tuning capacitor. The frame is built mainly from 3D-printed parts, which supports a shaft made from a common bolt. Plates are fashioned from stainless steel fender washers cut in half; the fixed plates are press-fit into the frame while the rotary plates ride on the shaft. The spacing between the rotary plates is maintained by printed spacers, which also serve to lock the rotor into one solid unit. [Jeremy]’s prototype, for which he provides STL files, can be tuned between about 7 and 15 pF. Check out the build in the video below.

We love the look of this, and we can imagine custom tuning caps would come in handy for certain retro radio builds. The tuning range is a little narrow, but that could be fixed with more plates or closer spacing. That might be a tall order with thick steel washers, but we’ve seen really thin aluminum machined and closely spaced before, so this might be one approach to higher capacitance. Continue reading “DIY Tuning Capacitors from Washers and 3D-Printed Parts”

You Should Not Try These Taser NERF Darts

For most of us, a good part of our childhood involved running around someone’s backyard (or inside the house) trying to score hits with a toy NERF gun. The fun level was high and the risk of personal injury was low. Now that we’re all mostly adults, it’s probably time to take our NERF game to the next level with some risk of serious personal harm.

In an effort to help his brother get back at him for being somewhat of a bully in their youth, [Allen Pan] gifted him with an upgraded NERF gun. Specifically, one with darts that pack a punch. Each of the “Elite” darts was equipped with a 300 V capacitor packed into the interior of the dart. New tips were 3D printed with special metal tips that allow the capacitor to discharge upon impact.

Besides the danger, there’s a good bit of science involved. Parts were scavenged from a new (and surprisingly expensive) disposable camera, and a customized circuit was constructed around the barrel of the dart gun that allows the darts to charge up when they’re loaded. It’s an impressive build that would be relatively simple to reconstruct for yourself, but it’s probably not the worst thing we’ve seen done with high voltage and a few small capacitors.

Thanks to [Itay] for the tip!

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Low-Quality Capacitors Turned Into High-Quality Temperature Sensors

When life hands you a bunch of crummy capacitors, what do you do? Make a whole bunch of temperature sensors, apparently.

The less-than-stellar caps in question came to [pyromaniac303] by way of one of those all-in-one assortment kits we so love to buy. Stocked with capacitors of many values, kits like these are great to have around, especially when they’ve got high-quality components in them. But not all ceramic caps are created equal, and [pyromaniac303] was determined not to let the lesser-quality units go to waste. A quick look at the data sheets revealed that the caps with the Y5V dielectric had a suitably egregious temperature coefficient to serve as a useful sensor. A fleck of perf-board holds a cap and a series resistor; the capacitor is charged by an Arduino output pin through the resistor, and the time it takes for the input pin connected to the other side of the cap to go high is measured. Charge time is proportional to temperature, and a few calibration runs showed that the response is pretty linear. Unfortunately the temperature coefficient peaks at 10°C and drops sharply below that point, making the sensor useful only on one side of the peak. Still, it’s an interesting way to put otherwise unloved parts to use, and a handy tip to keep in mind.

Temperature sensing isn’t the only trick capacitors can do. We’ve seen them turned into touch sensors before, and used to turn a 3D-printer into a 3D-scanner.