On January 21st, 2018 at 1:43 GMT, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifted off from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Roughly eight minutes later ground control received confirmation that the vehicle entered into a good orbit, followed shortly by the successful deployment of the payload. On only their second attempt, Rocket Lab had become the latest private company to put a payload into orbit. An impressive accomplishment, but even more so when you realize that the Electron is like no other rocket that’s ever flown before.
Not that you could tell from the outside. If anything, the external appearance of the Electron might be called boring. Perhaps even derivative, if you’re feeling less generous. It has the same fin-less blunted cylinder shape of most modern rockets, a wholly sensible (if visually unexciting) design. The vehicle’s nine first stage engines would have been noteworthy 15 years ago, but today only serve to draw comparisons with SpaceX’s wildly successful Falcon 9.
But while the Electron’s outward appearance is about as unassuming as they come, under that jet-black outer skin is some of the most revolutionary rocket technology seen since the V-2 first proved practical liquid fueled rockets were possible. As impressive as its been watching SpaceX teach a rocket to fly backwards and land on its tail, their core technology is still largely the same as what took humanity to the Moon in the 1960’s.
Vehicles that fundimentally change the established rules of spaceflight are, as you might expect, fairly rare. They often have a tendency to go up in a ball of flames; figuratively if not always literally. Now that the Electron has reached space and delivered its first payload, there’s no longer a question if the technology is viable or not. But whether anyone but Rocket Lab will embrace all the changes introduced with Electron may end up getting decided by the free market.
Electric current comes in many forms: current in a wire, flow of ions between the plates of a battery and between plates during electrolysis, as arcs, sparks, and so on. However, here on Hackaday we mostly deal with the current in a wire. But which way does that current flow in that wire? There are two possibilities depending on whether you’re thinking in terms of electron current or conventional current.
In a circuit connected to a battery, the electrons are the charge carrier and flow from the battery’s negative terminal, around the circuit and back to the positive terminal.
Conventional current takes just the opposite direction, from the positive terminal, around the circuit and back to the negative terminal. In that case there’s no charge carrier moving in that direction. Conventional current is a story we tell ourselves.
But since there is such a variety of forms that current comes in, the charge carrier sometimes does move from the positive to the negative, and sometimes movement is in both directions. When a lead acid battery is in use, positive hydrogen ions move in one direction while negative sulfate ions move in the other. So if the direction doesn’t matter then having a convention that ignores the charge carrier makes life easier.
Saying that we need a convention that’s independent of the charge carrier is all very nice, but that seems to be a side effect rather than the reason we have the convention. The convention was established long before there was a known variety of forms that current comes in — back even before the electron, or even the atom, was discovered. Why do we have the convention? As you’ll read below, it started with Benjamin Franklin.
In the electronics industry, the march of time brings with it a reduction in size. Our electronic devices, while getting faster, better and cheaper, also tend to get smaller. One of the main reasons for this is the storage medium for binary data gets smaller and more efficient. Many can recall the EPROM, which is about the size of your thumb. Today we walk around with SD cards that can hold an order of magnitude more data, which can fit on your thumb’s nail.
Naturally, we must ask ourselves where the limit lies. Just how small can memory storage get? How about a single atom! IBM along with a handful international scientists have managed to store two bits of information on two pairs of holmium atoms. Using a scanning tunneling microscope, they were able to write data to the atoms, which held the data for an extended period of time.
Holmium is a large atom, weighing in at a whopping 67 AMU. It’s a rare earth metal from the lanthanide series on the periodic table. Its electron configuration is such that many of the orbiting electrons are not paired. Recall from our article on the periodic table that paired electrons must have opposite spin, which has the unfortunate consequence of causing the individual magnetic fields to cancel. The fact that holmium has so many unpaired electrons makes it ideal for manipulation.
While you won’t be seeing atom-level memory on the next Raspberry Pi, it’s still neat to see what the future holds.
In the wee hours of the late 17th century, Isaac Newton could be found locked up in his laboratory prodding the secrets of nature. Giant plumes of green smoke poured from cauldrons of all shapes and sizes, while others hissed and spat new and mysterious chemical concoctions, like miniature volcanoes erupting with knowledge from the unknown. Under the eerie glow of twinkling candle light, Newton would go on to write over a million words on the subject of alchemy. He had to do so in secret because the practice was frowned upon at that time. In fact, it is now known that alchemy was the ‘science’ in which he was chiefly interested in. His fascination with turning lead into gold via the elusive philosopher’s stone is now evident. He had even turned down a professorship at Cambridge and instead opted for England’s Director of Mint, where he oversaw his nation’s gold repository.
Not much was known about the fundamental structure of matter in Newton’s time. The first version of the periodic table would not come along for more than a hundred and forty years after his death. With the modern atomic structure not surfacing for another 30 years after that. Today, we know that we can’t turn lead into gold without setting the world on fire. Alchemy is recognized as a pseudoscience, and we opt for modern chemistry to describe the interactions between the elements. Everyone walking out of high school knows what atoms and the periodic table are. They know what the sub-atomic particles and their associated electric charges are. In this article, we’re going to push beyond the basics. We’re going to look at atomic structure from a quantum mechanical view, which will give you a new understanding of why the periodic table looks the way it does. In fact, you can construct the entire periodic table using nothing but the quantum numbers.
Some folks at the i3Detroit hackerspace had an opportunity come up that would allow them to capture lightning in acrylic. They created a few Lichtenberg figures thanks to the help of a plastic tubing manufacturer, some lead sheet and a bunch of 1/2″ thick acrylic.
Lichtenberg figures are the 3D electrical trees found in paperweights the world over. They’re created through electrical discharge through an insulator, with lightning being the most impressive Lichtenberg figure anyone has ever seen. These figures can be formed in smaller objet d’art, the only necessity being a huge quantity of electrons pumped into the insulator.
This was found at Mercury Plastics’ Neo-Beam facility, a 5MeV electron accelerator that’s usually used to deliver energy for molecular cross linking in PEX tubing to enhance chemical resistance. For one day, some of the folks at i3Detroit were able to take over the line, shuffling a thousand or so acrylic parts through the machine to create Lichtenberg figures.
When the acrylic goes through the electron accelerator, they’re loaded up with a charge trapped inside. A quick mechanical shock discharges the acrylic, creating beautiful tree-like figures embedded in the plastic. There are a lot of pictures of the finished figures in a gallery, but if you want to see something really cool, a lead-shielded GoPro was also run through the electron accelerator. You can check out that video below.
A few years ago [Ben Krasnow] built a scanning electron microscope from a few parts he had sitting around. He’s done a few overviews of how he built his SEM, but now he’s put up a great video on how to control electrons, focus them into a point, and scan a sample.
The basic idea behind a scanning electron microscope is to shoot electrons down a tube, focus them into a point, and scan a conductive sample and detect the secondary electrons shot off the sample and display them on an oscilloscope. [Ben] is generating electrons with a small tungsten filament at the top of his electron ‘stack’. Being like charged, these electrons naturally fan out, so a good bit of electron optics are required to get a small point.
We hope you paid attention in advanced theoretical and quantum physics classes, or making your own Open Source Scanning-Tunneling Microscope might be a bit of a doozy. We’re not even going to try to begin to explain the device (honestly we slept through that course) beyond clarifying it is used for examining the molecular and atomic structure of surfaces; but for those still interested there is a nice breakdown of how Scanning Tunneling Microscopy works.