From Trash PPE To New PPE

As the coronavirus pandemic circles the world, a fact of daily life for millions of people has become the wearing of a face mask. Some people sport colorful fabric masks, but for many, this means the ubiquitous Chinese disposable mask. They have become the litter of our time, which as [blorgggg] notes is something that shouldn’t have to be the case. Their plastic can be recycled and made into other useful things, for example, ear savers similar to the ones many of us were 3D printing earlier in the year.

As you might imagine diving into a pile of used masks can be a little unhygienic, so the first step is to disinfect with alcohol. Then the various layers can be separated and the outer polypropylene ones collected and stacked between baking parchment to be melted on a skillet. The result is a polypropylene sheet that can be laser cut if it is thick enough, and from this are cut the ear savers. It’s not quite as neat a cut as the acrylic sheet we may be used to, but it’s adequate for the task.

While on the subject of masks, earlier in the year we presented a series in whose first part we dissected a selection.

COVID-tracing Framework Privacy Busted By Bluetooth

[Serge Vaudenay] and [Martin Vuagnoux] released a video yesterday documenting a privacy-breaking flaw in the Apple/Google COVID-tracing framework, and they’re calling the attack “Little Thumb” after a French children’s story in which a child drops pebbles to be able to retrace his steps. But unlike Hänsel and Gretl with the breadcrumbs, the goal of a privacy preserving framework is to prevent periodic waypoints from allowing you to follow anyone’s phone around. (Video embedded below.)

The Apple/Google framework is, in theory, quite sound. For instance, the system broadcasts hashed, rolling IDs that prevent tracing an individual phone for more than fifteen minutes. And since Bluetooth LE has a unique numeric address for each phone, like a MAC address in other networks, they even thought of changing the Bluetooth address in lock-step to foil would-be trackers. And there’s no difference between theory and practice, in theory.

In practice, [Serge] and [Martin] found that a slight difference in timing between changing the Bluetooth BD_ADDR and changing the COVID-tracing framework’s rolling proximity IDs can create what they are calling “pebbles”: an overlap where the rolling ID has updated but the Bluetooth ID hasn’t yet. Logging these allows one to associate rolling IDs over time. A large network of Bluetooth listeners could then trace people’s movements and possibly attach identities to chains of rolling IDs, breaking one of the framework’s privacy guarantees.

This timing issue only affects some phones, about half of the set that they tested. And of course, it’s only creating a problem for privacy within Bluetooth LE range. But for a system that’s otherwise so well thought out in principle, it’s a flaw that needs fixing.

Why didn’t the researchers submit a patch? They can’t. The Apple/Google code is mostly closed-source, in contrast to the open-source nature of most of the apps that are running on it. This remains troubling, precisely because the difference between the solid theory and the real practice lies exactly in those lines of uninspectable code, and leaves all apps that build upon them vulnerable without any recourse other than “trust us”. We encourage Apple and Google to make the entirety of their COVID framework code open. Bugs would then get found and fixed, faster.

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A Dangerous Demonstration Of The Power Of Radio

Terrestrial radio may be a dying medium, but there are still plenty of listeners out there. What would a commute to or from work be without a check of “Traffic on the Eights” to see if you need to alter your route, or an update of the scores from yesterday’s games? Getting that signal out to as many listeners as possible takes a lot of power, and this dangerous yet fascinating demo shows just how much power there is on some radio towers.

Coming to us by way of a reddit post, the short video clips show a crew working on a 15,000-Watt AM radio tower. They appear to be preparing to do tower maintenance, which means de-energizing the antenna. As the engineer explains, antennas for AM radio stations in the medium-wave band are generally the entire tower structure, as opposed to the towers for FM and TV stations, which generally just loft the antenna as high as possible above the landscape. The fun starts when the crew disconnects a jumper and an arc forms across the clamp and the antenna feed. The resulting ball of plasma acts like a speaker, letting us clearly hear the programming on the station. It’s like one of the plasma speakers we’ve seen before, albeit exceptionally more dangerous.

It’s an impressive display of the power coursing through broadcast towers, and a vivid reminder to not mess with them. Such warnings often go unheeded, sadly, with the young and foolish paying the price. There’s a reason they put fences up around radio towers, after all.

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Simple Acrylic Plates Make Kirlian Photography A Breeze

We know, we know – “Kirlian photography” is a term loaded with pseudoscientific baggage. Paranormal researchers have longed claimed that Kirlian photography can explore the mood or emotional state of a subject through the “aura”, an energy field said to surround and emanate from all living things. It’s straight-up nonsense, of course, but that doesn’t detract from the beauty of plasma aficionado [Jay Bowles]’ images produced by capacitive coupling and corona discharge.

Technically, what [Jay] is doing here is not quite Kirlian photography. The classic setup for “electrophotography” is a sandwich of photographic film, a glass plate, and a metal ground plate. An object with a high-voltage, high-frequency power supply attached is placed on top of the sandwich, and the resulting corona discharge exposes the film. [Jay]’s version is a thin chamber made of two pieces of solvent-welded acrylic and filled with water. A bolt between the acrylic panes conducts current from a Tesla coil – perhaps this one that we’ve featured before – into the water. When something is placed on the acrylic, a beautiful purple corona discharge streams out from the object.

It’s an eerie effect, and it’s easy to see how people can see an aura and attribute mystical properties to it. In the end, though, it’s not much different than touching a plasma globe, and just about as safe. Feeling a bit more destructive? Corona discharge is a great way to make art, both in wood and in acrylic.

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Neon Lamps Light Up Dim Ion Motor

Small pinwheel type ion motors fall into the category of a fun science experiment or something neat to do with high voltage, but Hackaday’s own [Manuel Rodriguez-Achach] added a neat twist that incorporates neon lamps.

Normally you’d take a straight wire and make 90 degree bends at either end but pointing in opposite directions, balance it on a pole, and apply a high voltage with a moderate amount of current. The wire starts spinning around at the top of the pole, provided the ends of the wire are sharp enough or the wire has a small enough diameter. If your power supply has ample current available then in the dark you’ll even see a purplish glow, called a corona, at the tips of the wire.

[Manuel] made just such an ion motor but his power supply didn’t have the necessary current to produce a strong enough corona to be visible to his camera. So he very cleverly soldered neon lamps on the two ends of the wires. One leg of each lamp goes to the wire and the other end of the lamp acts as the sharp point left out in the air for emitting the ions.

The voltage needed across each lamp in order to ignite it is that between the high voltage power supply’s output and the potential of the surrounding air. That air may be initially at ground potential but he also bends the other output terminal of the power supply such that its tip is also up in the air. This way it sprays ions of the opposite polarity into the surrounding air.

Either way, the neon lamps light up and the wire spins around on the pole. Now, even without a visible corona, his ion motor makes an awesome display. Check it out in the video below.

For more about these ion motors, sometimes called electric whirls, check our article about all sorts of interesting non-electromagnetic motors.

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Expanding Horizons With The Ion Propelled Lifter

Like many people, going through university followed an intense career building period was a dry spell in terms of making things. Of course things settled down and I finally broke that dry spell to work on what I called “non-conventional propulsion”.

I wanted to stay away from the term “anti-gravity” because I was enough of a science nut to know that such a thing was dubious. But I also suspected that there might be science principles yet to be discovered. I was willing to give it a try anyway, and did for a few years. It was also my introduction to the world of high voltage… DC. Everything came out null though, meaning that any effects could be accounted for by some form of ionization or Coulomb force. At no time did I get anything to actually fly, though there was a lot of spinning things on rotors or weight changes on scales and balances due to ion propulsion.

So when a video appeared in 2001 from a small company called Transdimensional Technologies of a triangle shaped, aluminum foil and wire thing called a lifter that actually propelled itself off the table, I immediately had to make one. I’d had enough background by then to be confident that it was flying using ion propulsion. And in fact, given my background I was able to put an enhancement in my first version that others came up with only later.

For those who’ve never seen a lifter, it’s extremely simple. Think of it as a very leaky capacitor. One electrode is an aluminum foil skirt, in the shape of a triangle. Spaced apart from that around an inch or so away, usually using 1/6″ balsa wood sticks, is a very thin bare wire (think 30AWG) also shaped as a triangle. High voltage is applied between the foil skirt and the wire. The result is that a downward jet of air is created around and through the middle of the triangle and the lifter flies up off the table. But that is just the barest explanation of how it works. We must go deeper!

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Wrangling High Voltage

Working with high voltage is like working with high pressure plumbing. You can spring a leak in your plumbing, and of course you fix it. And now that you’ve fixed that leak, you’re able to increase the pressure still more, and sometimes another leak occurs. I’ve had these same experiences but with high voltage wiring. At a high enough voltage, around 30kV or higher, the leak manifests itself as a hissing sound and a corona that appears as a bluish glow of excited ions spraying from the leak. Try to dial up the voltage and the hiss turns into a shriek.

Why do leaks occur in high voltage? I’ve found that the best way to visualize the reason is by visualizing electric fields. Electric fields exist between positive and negative charges and can be pictured as electric field lines (illustrated below on the left.) The denser the electric field lines, the stronger the electric field.

The stronger electric fields are where ionization of the air occurs. As illustrated in the “collision” example on the right above, ionization can happen by a negatively charged electron leaving the electrically conductive surface, which can be a wire or a part of the device, and colliding with a nearby neutral atom turning it into an ion. The collision can result in the electron attaching to the atom, turning the atom into a negatively charged ion, or the collision can knock another electron from the atom, turning the atom into a positively charged ion. In the “stripping off” example illustrated above, the strong electric field can affect things more directly by stripping an electron from the neutral atom, again turning it into a positive ion. And there are other effects as well such as electron avalanches and the photoelectric effect.

In either case, we wanted to keep those electrons in the electrically conductive wires or other surfaces and their loss constitutes a leak in a very real way.

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