Mining And Refining: Helium

With a seemingly endless list of shortages of basic items trotted across newsfeeds on a daily basis, you’d be pardoned for not noticing any one shortage in particular. But in among the shortages of everything from eggs to fertilizers to sriracha sauce has been a growing realization that we may actually be running out of something so fundamental that it could have repercussions that will be felt across all aspects of our technological society: helium.

The degree to which helium is central to almost every aspect of daily life is hard to overstate. Helium’s unique properties, like the fact that it remains liquid at just a few degrees above absolute zero, contribute to its use in countless industrial processes. From leak detection and welding to silicon wafer production and cooling the superconducting magnets that make magnetic resonance imaging possible, helium has become entrenched in technology in a way that belies its relative scarcity.

But where does helium come from? As we’ll see, the second lightest element on the periodic table is not easy to come by, and considerable effort goes into extracting and purifying it enough for industrial use. While great strides are being made toward improved methods of extraction and the discovery of new deposits, for all practical purposes helium is a non-renewable resource for which there are no substitutes. So it pays to know a thing or two about how we get our hands on it.

Continue reading “Mining And Refining: Helium”

The Sound Of (Synthesized) Music

What’s an ADSR envelope generator? If you are a big music hacker, you probably know. If you are like the rest of us, you might need to read [Mich’s] post to find out that it is an attack-decay-sustain-release (ADSR) envelope generator. Still confused? It is a circuit used in music synthesis. You can see a demo of the device in the video below.

Before the Altair–which was sort of the first hobbyist computer you could actually buy–electronics magazines were full of music synthesizer projects that had a lot in common with the analog computers of old. A lot of people took that very seriously and then computers took over the collective consciousness¬†and we found musical hackers started working with (digital) computer-based synthesizers. But the old analog synth designs just won’t die. [Mich’s] ADSR is based on an ancient design, and the amount of information and additions he provides makes it worth a read, even if you don’t fancy building one.

Continue reading “The Sound Of (Synthesized) Music”

Carnivorous Robots

flypaperup

Artists [James Auger] and [Jimmy Loizeau] have put out this display of carnivorous robots. Pictured above is a clock that is powered by a microbial fuel cell. The clock is equipped with a scroll of sticky paper for catching the flies which it then scrapes into it’s cell for digestion. The other pieces include a mouse eating coffee table, a strange mechanism for stealing spider’s meals, and a lamp shade inspired by pitcher plants.