Harvesting Energy from the Earth with Quantum Tunneling

More energy hits the earth in sunlight every day than humanity could use in about 16,000 years or so, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying to tap into other sources of energy too. One source that shows promise is geothermal, but these methods have been hindered by large startup costs and other engineering challenges. A new way to tap into this energy source has been found however, which relies on capturing the infrared radiation that the Earth continuously gives off rather than digging large holes and using heat exchangers.

This energy is the thermal radiation that virtually everything gives off in some form or another. The challenge in harvesting this energy is that since the energy is in the infrared range, exceptionally tiny antennas are needed which will resonate at that frequency. It isn’t just fancy antennas, either; a new type of diode had to be manufactured which uses quantum tunneling to convert the energy into DC electricity.

While the scientists involved in this new concept point out that this is just a prototype at this point, it shows promise and could be a game-changer since it would allow clean energy to be harvested whenever needed, and wouldn’t rely on the prevailing weather. While many clean-energy-promising projects often seem like pipe dreams, we can’t say it’s the most unlikely candidate for future widespread adoption we’ve ever seen.

Minimizing ESP8266 Battery Drain

[Alex Jensen] wanted to build a battery-powered weather station, using an ESP8266 breakout board to connect to WiFi. However, [Alex]’s research revealed that the ESP chip uses around 70mA per hour when the radio is on — meaning that he’d have to change batteries a lot more than he wanted to. He really wanted a low power rig such that he’d only have to change batteries every 2 years on a pair of AAs.

The two considerations would be, how often does the ESP get powered up for data transmissions — and how often the weather station’s ATtiny85 takes sensor readings. Waking up the ESP from sleep mode takes about 16mA — plus, once awake it takes about 3 seconds to reconnect, precious time at 70mA. However, by using a static IP address he was able to pare that down to half a second, with one more second to do the actual data transmission. In addition to the hourly WiFi connection, the Tiny85 must be powered, though its relatively modest 1.5mA per hour doesn’t amount to much, even with the chip awake for 36 hours during the year. All told, the various components came to around 500 mAh per year, so using a pair of AA batteries should keep the rig going for years.

We’re intrigued by stories of hackers eking out every last drop of power to make their projects work. We’ve posted about ESPs low-power mode before, and what can be more low-power than a watch running off a coin cell?

Stepper Driver Module with Swappable Heatsinks

At first glance, [Dean Gouramanis]’s stepper driver module for 3D printers looks like just another RAMPS-compatible stepper board. Except, what could that gold-plated copper peg sticking out of the PCB possibly be? That would be [Dean]’s PowerPeg Thermal Management System that he built and entered in the Hackaday Prize competition for 2015, where it rocked its way into the Finals. It’s a thermal connector peg that attaches to a variety of heatsinks so you can swap in whatever sink fits the bill.

In the case of this project, [Dean] created a custom PCB that accommodates the PowerPeg connector, onto which the heat sink screws. Needless to say, he machined his own heatsinks to go with the pegs, though it looks like you could use any sink with enough surface contact that can be secured by the same #0-80 screw.

You shouldn’t be surprised that hackers obsess over heatsinks. This heatsink tester project we published helps determine which sink  to use. Another post gives all the ins and outs of ordering a custom heatsink.

Minecraft and Forge: Try This Amazing Way to Visualize Logic

I’ve got virtual circuits on the mind lately. There are a myriad of tools out there that I could pick up to satisfy this compulsion. But the one I’m reaching for is Minecraft. I know what you’re thinking… a lot of people think Minecraft is getting long in the tooth. But chances are you never tried some of the really incredible things Minecraft can do when it comes to understanding logic structures. This goes way beyond simple circuits and easily hops back and forth over the divide between hardware logic and software logic.

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Precision Pantograph Probes PCBs

Electronic components are getting smaller and for most of us, our eyesight is getting worse. When [Kurt] started using a microscope to get a better view of his work, he realized he needed another tool to give his hands the same kind of precision. That tool didn’t exist so he built it.

The PantoProbe is a pantograph mechanism meant to guide a probe for reaching the tiny pads of his SMT components. He reports that he has no longer has any trouble differentiating pins 0.5 mm apart which is the diameter of the graphite sticks in our favorite mechanical pencils.

[Kurt] has already expanded his machine’s capability to include a holder for a high-frequency probe and even pulleys for a pick-and-place variation. There’s no mention of dual-wielding PantoProbes as micro-helping-hands but the versatility we’ve seen suggests that it is only a matter of time.

Four bar linkages are capable of some incredible feats and they’re found all around us. Enjoy one of [Kurt]’s other custom PCBs in his Plexitube Owl Clock, or let him show you to make 3D objects with a laser engraver.

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What’s the Best Way to Learn Electronics?

What’s the best way to learn electronics? It’s a pithy question to ask a Hackaday audience, most of whom are at least conversant in the field already. Those who already have learned often have just their own perspective to draw upon—how they themselves learned. Some of you may have taught others. I want to explore what works and what doesn’t.

Hobbyists Learn Differently Than Students

One thing I can say straight off is that students learn differently than people who learn at home. Hobbyists have the advantage of actually being interested, which is a quality a student may not enjoy. People have been teaching themselves electronics since the beginning, with analog projects–Heathkit models, BEAM robots, and ham radio sets–evolving into purely digital projects.

Let’s face it, Arduinos lower the bar like nothing else. There’s a reason why the Blink sketch has become the equivalent to “Hello World”. Dirt cheap and easily configured microcontrollers combined with breakout boards make it easy for anyone to participate.

However, ask any true EE and that person will tell you that following wiring diagrams and plugging in sensor boards from Sparkfun only teaches so much. You don’t bone up on terms like hysteresis or bias by building something from uCs and breakout boards. But do you need to? If you are truly interested in electronics and learn by making those Adafruit or Sparkfun projects, sooner or later you’ll want to make your own breakout boards. You’ll learn how to design your own circuit boards and figure out why things work and why they don’t. I don’t need to tell you the Internet has all the answers a neophyte needs–but the interest has to be there in the first place.

What’s the Best Way to Learn in the Classroom?

There is a product category within robotics kits that consists of “educational rovers” designed to be purchased in group lots by teachers so that each student or small group gets one. These rovers are either pre-built or mostly built—sure, you get to screw in motor mounts, but all the circuit boards are already soldered up for you, surface mount, no less. They come pre-configured for a variety of simple tasks like line following and obstacle avoidance. The Makeblock mBot is an example.

I think it’s part of that whole “learn coding” initiative, where the idea is to minimize the assembly in order to maximize the coding time. Insofar as soldering together a kit of through-hole components teaches about electronics, these bots mostly don’t do it. By all appearances, if there is a best way to learn electronics, this an’t it. However, regardless of what kind of project the teacher puts in front of the student, it still has to generate some sort of passion. What those robots provide is a moment of coolness that ignites the firestorm of interest.

I once led a soldering class that used Blinky Grids by Wayne and Layne as the focus. This is a fantastic kit that guides you through building a small LED matrix. It’s particularly cool because it can be programmed over a computer monitor with light sensors interacting with white and black squares on the company’s web site. When my students finished their grids, they all worked and had unique messages scrolling through. Now, that is a payoff. I’m not saying that any of those folks became hardware hackers as a result of my class, but it beat the hell out of a Christmas tree, am I right?

Getting back to that rover, what must be acknowledged is that the rover itself is the payoff, and that’s only as far as it goes if everyone loses interest. However, a lot of those rovers have expansion possibilities like bolting on another sensor or changing the method of programming–for instance, the mBot has both a graphic programming interface and can also be reflashed with a regular old Arduino bootloader.

Readers, share in comments your own perspective. How did you learn? How would you teach others?

The Hackaday Prize: Exoskeletons for the Masses

While medical facilities continue to improve worldwide, access to expensive treatments still eludes a vast amount of people. Especially when it comes to prosthetics, a lot of people won’t be able to afford something so personalized even though the need for assistive devices is extremely high. With that in mind, [Guillermo Herrera-Arcos] started working on ALICE, a robotic exoskeleton that is low-cost, easy to build, and as an added bonus, 100% Open Source.

ALICE’s creators envision that the exoskeleton will have applications in rehabilitation, human augmentation, and even gaming. Also, since it’s Open Source, it could also be used as a platform for STEM students to learn from. Currently, the team is testing electronics in the legs of the exoskeleton, but they have already come a long way with their control system and getting a workable prototype in place. Moving into the future, the creators, as well as anyone else who develops something on this platform, will always be improving it and building upon it thanks to the nature of Open Source hardware.