Ask Hackaday: Repair Café Or Not?

A huge part of the work our community does, aside from making things and doing a lot of talking about the things we’d like to make, involves repair. We have the skills to fix our own stuff when it breaks, we can fix broken stuff that other people throw out when it breaks, and we can fix broken stuff belonging to other people. As our consumer society has evolved around products designed to frustrate repairs and facilitate instead the sale of new replacements for broken items this is an essential skill to keep alive; both to escape having to incessantly replace our possessions at the whim of corporate overlords, and to fight the never-ending tide of waste.

Repair Cafés: A Good Thing

A German repair cafe
A German repair café. , Redaktion NdW, CC BY 2.0

So we repair things that are broken, for example on my bench in front of me is a formerly-broken camera I’ve given a new life, on the wall in one of my hackerspaces is a large screen TV saved from a dumpster where it lay with a broken PSU, and in another hackerspace a capsule coffee machine serves drinks through a plastic manifold held together with cable ties.

We do it for ourselves, we do it within our communities, and increasingly, we do it for the wider community at large. The Repair Café movement is one of local groups who host sessions at which they repair broken items brought in by members of the public, for free. Their work encompasses almost anything you’d find in a home, from textiles and furniture to electronics, and they are an extremely good cause that should be encouraged at all costs.

For all my admiration for the Repair Café movement though, I have chosen not to involve myself in my local one. Not because they aren’t a fine bunch of people or because they don’t do an exceptionally good job, but for a different reason. And it symbolically comes back to an afternoon over thirty years ago, when sitting in a university lab in Hull, I was taught how to wire a British mains plug. Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: Repair Café Or Not?”

The Deadliest Project On The Internet?

Before deciding whether the headline of this article is clickbait, please take a moment to watch the excellent video by [BigClive] below the break. And then, go to your local search engine and search the phrase “fractal burning death”. We’ll wait.

With that out of the way, we have to admit that when we saw the subject “The most deadly project on the Internet” on [bigclivedotcom]’s YouTube channel, we were a bit skeptical. It’s a big claim. But then we watched the video and did some googling. Sadly, there are over 30 documented cases of this project killing people, and more cases of permanent grievous injury.

The results of Fractal Wood Burning with High Voltage

Fractal Burning is a hobby where wood is burned by slathering wood in a conductive slurry and then applying high voltage to either side of the wood, usually using something not rated for high voltage, such as jumper cables. The High Voltage is supplied by an unmodified Microwave Oven Transformer. Other projects using MOT’s typically rip out the high voltage secondary windings and re-wind them as low voltage, high amperage transformers, and are using in Spot Welders and even arc welders.

As laid out by [BigClive], the voltages coming from an unmodified MOT, ranging from 2-3 KV (That’s between two and three thousand Volts) at a very low impedance are right up there in the “Don’t go near it!” territory.

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Testing 7 Wago-like Wire Connectors For Science And Fire

At the intersection of saving a few bucks and expensive home insurance claims due to a house fire, we find clones of certified and tested electrical connectors, even when many would argue that so-called wire nuts are fire hazards no matter how many certification labels are on them. When it comes to no-fuss wire connectors, Wago clamp connectors are an attractive target to save some money on due to their perceived high cost. But how expensive are they really?

This was the thought behind a recent video by [GreatScott!] (also embedded after the break) when he hopped onto everyone’s favorite e-commerce website and searched for ‘clamp lever terminal’. The resulting selection of seven connectors come in a wide variety of shapes, colors and configurations, though all are supposedly rated for mains (250 VAC) voltage and safe enough to put into a permanent installation.

While running the connectors through their paces with high-current, fire and mechanical strength tests, the conclusion was that all are good enough for hobbyists use and some brief connections while testing, but that only the ones with independent certification marks (like VDE) filled him with enough confidence to consider using in house wiring. One of these being the connectors by the German brand ViD, which would seem to be a slightly cheaper alternative to the Wago connectors, with similar guarantees of safety.

At the end of the day it is the certification that matters, after all, since long-term reliability is of primary concern with house wiring, not whether a few Euros were saved on material costs.

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The Quest To Find A Second Life For Electric Vehicle Batteries

Rechargeable lithium chemistry battery cells found their mass market foothold in the field of personal electronics. The technology has since matured enough to be scaled up (in both physical size and production volume) to electric cars, making long range EVs far more economical than what was possible using earlier batteries. Would the new economics also make battery reuse a profitable business? Eric Lundgren is one of those willing to make a run at it, and [Gizmodo] took a look at his latest venture.

This man is a serial entrepreneur, though his previous business idea was not successful as it involved “reusing” trademarks that were not his to use. Fortunately this new business BigBattery appears to be on far more solid legal footing, disassembling battery packs from retired electric vehicles and repacking cells for other purposes. Typically EV batteries are deemed “worn out” when their capacity drops below a certain percentage (70% is a common bar) but that reduced capacity could still be useful outside of an EV. And when battery packs are retired due to problems elsewhere in the car, or just suffering from a few bad cells, it’s possible to extract units in far better shape.

We’ve been interested in how to make the best use of rechargeable lithium batteries. Ranging from tech notes helping battery reuse, to a comparison of different types, to looking at how their end-of-life recycling will be different from lead-acid batteries. Not to mention countless project wins and fails in between. A recurring theme is the volatility of mistreated or misbehaving batteries. Seeing a number of EV battery packs stacked on pallets and shelves, presumably filled with cells of undetermined quality, fills us with unease. Like the rest of California, Chatsworth is under earthquake risk, and the town was uncomfortably close to some wildfires in 2019. Eric is quick to give assurance that employees are given regular safety training and the facility conforms to all applicable workplace safety rules. But did those rules consider warehouses packed full of high capacity lithium battery cells of unknown quality? We expect that, like the business itself, standards for safety will evolve.

Concerns on safety aside, a successful business here would mean electric vehicles have indeed given battery reuse a profitable economy of scale that tiny little cell phone and laptop batteries could not reach. We are optimistic that Eric and other like-minded people pursuing similar goals can evolve this concept into a bright spot in our otherwise woeful state of e-waste handling.

The Science Behind Lithium Cell Characteristics And Safety

To describe the constraints on developing consumer battery technology as ‘challenging’ is an enormous understatement. The ideal rechargeable battery has conflicting properties – it has to store large amounts of energy, safely release or absorb large amounts of it on demand, and must be unable to release that energy upon failure. It also has to be cheap, nontoxic, lightweight, and scalable.

As a result, consumer battery technologies represent a compromise between competing goals. Modern rechargeable lithium batteries are no exception, although overall they are a marvel of engineering. Mobile technology would not be anywhere near as good as it is today without them. We’re not saying you cannot have cellphones based on lead-acid batteries (in fact the Motorola 2600 ‘Bag Phone’ was one), but you had better have large pockets. Also a stout belt or… some type of harness? It turns out lead is heavy.

The Motorola 2600 ‘bag phone’, with a lead-acid battery. Image CC-BY-SA 3.0 source: Trent021

Rechargeable lithium cells have evolved tremendously over the years since their commercial release in 1991. Early on in their development, small grains plated with lithium metal were used, which had several disadvantages including loss of cell capacity over time, internal short circuits, and fairly high levels of heat generation. To solve these problems, there were two main approaches: the use of polymer electrolytes, and the use of graphite electrodes to contain the lithium ions rather than use lithium metal. From these two approaches, lithium-ion (Li-ion) and lithium-polymer (Li-Po) cells were developed (Vincent, 2009, p. 163). Since then, many different chemistries have been developed.

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Lethal LED Lantern Leaks Lotsa ‘Leccy

When you take an item with you on a camping trip and it fails, you are not normally in a position to replace it immediately, thus you have the choice of fixing it there and then, or doing without it. When his LED camping lantern failed, [Mark Smith] was in the lucky position of camping at a friend’s compound equipped with all the tools, so of course he set about fixing it. What he found shocked him metaphorically, but anyone who handles it while it is charging can expect the more literal variation.

The lamp was an LED lantern with built-in mains and solar chargers for its Ni-Cd battery pack, and a USB charger circuit that provided a 5 volt output for charging phones and the like. The problem [Mark] discovered was that the mains charger circuit did not have any mains isolation, being a simple capacitive voltage dropper feeding a rectifier. These circuits are very common because they are extremely cheap, and are perfectly safe when concealed within insulated mains-powered products with no external connections. In the case of [Mark]’s lantern though the USB charging socket provided that external connection, and thus access to a potential 120 VAC shock for anyone touching it while charging.

Plainly this lamp doesn’t conform to any of the required safety standards for mains-powered equipment, and we’re guessing that its design might have come about by an existing safe lamp being manufactured with an upgrade in the form of the USB charger. The write-up gives it a full examination, and includes a modification to safely charge it from a wall-wart or similar safe power supply. Definitely one to watch out for!

If you were wondering what the fault was with Mark’s lamp, it was those cheap NiCd batteries failing. He replaced them, but there are plenty of techniques to rejuvenate old NiCds, both backyard, and refined.

The Importance Of Electrical Safety

Everything you do bears some risk of getting you hurt or killed. That’s just the way life is. Some people drown in the bath, and others get kilovolt AC across their heart. Knowing the dangers — how drastic and how likely the are — is the first step toward mitigating them. (We’re not saying that you shouldn’t bathe or play with high voltages.)

This third chapter of an e-book on electronics is a good read. It goes through the physiology of getting shocked (DC is more likely to freeze your muscles, but AC is more likely to fibrillate your heart) and the various scenarios that you should be looking out for. There’s a section on safe practices, and safe circuit design. It’s the basics, but it’s also stuff that we probably should have known when we started messing around with electrons in bulk.

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