Refurbishing A Classic Electrostatic Speaker PSU

Sometimes a project takes longer than it should to land in the Hackaday in-tray, but when we read about it there’s such gold to be found that it’s worth sharing with you our readers despite its slight lack of freshness. So it is with [Andrew Back]’s refurbishment of his Quad electrostatic speaker system power supply, it may have been published back in August but the glimpse it gives us into these legendary audio components is fascinating.

The inner workings of an electrostatic loudspeaker
The inner workings of an electrostatic loudspeaker

An electrostatic speaker is in effect a capacitor with a very large surface area, of which one plate is a flexible membrane suspended between two pieces of acoustically transparent mesh that form the other plates. A very high DC bias voltage in the multiple kilovolts region is applied across the capacitor, and the audio is superimposed upon it at a peak-to-peak voltage of somewhere under a kilovolt through a step-up transformer from the audio amplifier. There are some refinements such as that the audio is fed as a push-pull signal to the opposing mesh plates and that there are bass and treble panels with different thickness membranes, but these speakers are otherwise surprisingly simple devices.

The problem with [Andrew]’s speakers became apparent when he took a high voltage probe to them, one speaker delivered 3 kV from its power supply while the other delivered only 1 kV. Each supply took the form of a mains transformer and a voltage multiplier board, so from there it became a case of replacing the aged diodes and capacitors with modern equivalents before applying an insulating layer for safety.

Electrostatic speakers are no stranger to Hackaday, we’ve taken an in-depth look at them in the past. You may also find some of our colleague [Steven Dufresne]’s writing on the matter to be of interest, on measuring high voltages, and his experience wrangling high voltage.

Better Motion Through Electrostatic Actuators

If you want something to move with electricity, odds are you’ll be using magnets. Deep inside every servo, every motor, and every linear actuator is a magnet and some coils of wire. There is another way of making things move, though: electrostatics. These are usually seen in tiny MEMS devices, and now we have tiny little electrostatic speakers making their way into phones and other miniature devices.

For [Nathann]’s Hackaday Prize entry, he’s building electrostatic actuators on the cheap, and not just tiny ones, either. He’s building ‘human’ scale electrostatic devices.

The reason electrostatic devices are usually very small is simple: the force of any actuator is dependent on the distance between the plates and the voltage. Moving the plates closer together is right out, or else they would be touching, so the solution to building bigger electrostatic actuators is increasing the voltage. [Nathann] is doing this with a cheap boost converter that’s actually sold as a taser module. These modules are small, output about 800kV, and cost around five bucks.

The prototype for this project is basically a 3D printed box with intersecting fins. These fins are covered in aluminum foil, and the box is filled with oil to prevent arcing. Will it work? That remains to be seen, but this project is a great example of what can be done with some creative part sourcing, a 3D printer, and a tiny bit of know-how. It’s some of the best work the Hackaday Prize has to offer, and we’re amazed that [Nathann] put in the work to make this happen.

Electrostatically Accelerated Ping-Pong Ball Travels the Circuit

There is a special breed of hardware hacker whose playground lies in the high voltage arena. Their bench sizzles with the ozone and plasma of Tesla coils, and perhaps it’s best not to approach it without a handy fluorescent light tube to sniff for unseen hazards. There are many amazing things that can come of these experiments, and fortunately for those of us who lack the means or courage to experiment with them there are many YouTube videos to satisfy our curiosity.

One such comes from [Plasma channel], in the form of a table-top ping-pong ball accelerator. It lacks impressive sparks  but makes up for it in scientific edification, because it uses static electricity to send a conductive-paint-coated ping-pong ball spinning round the inside of a curved glass bowl. It does this using alternate positive and negatively charged strips of aluminium tape on the inside of the bowl, each of which charges the ball as it rolls over it, then giving it a bit of repulsive force to keep it spinning. His power comes from a couple of small Wimshurst machines, but no doubt other similar generators could be used instead.

The whole is an entertaining if a little hazardous talking point, and a fun weekend build. The parts are easy enough to find that you might even have them to hand. If continued electrostatic diversion floats your boat, you might like to read our recent excursion into the subject.

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The (Robot) Body Electric

If you deal with electronics, you probably think of static electricity as a bad thing. It blows up MOSFETs and ICs and we take a lot of pains to prevent that kind of damage. But a start-up company called Grabit is using static electricity as a way to allow robots to manipulate the real world. In particular, Nike is using these robots to build shoes. You can see a demo video, below.

Traditional robots use human-like hands or claw-like grippers to mimic how humans handle material. But Grabit has multiple patents on electroadhesion. The original focus was wall-climbing robots, but the real pay off has been in manufacturing robots since the electrostatic robots can do things that mechanical hands are a long way from duplicating.

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Vintage Plotter Handles Chaos With Ease

No lab in almost any discipline was complete in the 70s and 80s without an X-Y plotter. The height of data acquisition chic, these simple devices were connected to almost anything that produced an analog output worth saving. Digital data acquisition pushed these devices to the curb, but they’re easily found, cheap, and it’s worth a look under the hood to see what made these things tick.

The HP-7044A that [Kerry Wong] scored off eBay is in remarkably good shape four decades after leaving the factory. While the accessory pack that came with it shows its age with dried up pens and disintegrating foam, the plotter betrays itself only by the yellowish cast to its original beige case. Inside, the plotter looks pristine. Completely analog with the only chips being some op-amps in TO-5 cans, everything is in great shape, even the high-voltage power supply used to electrostatically hold the paper to the plotter’s bed. Anyone hoping for at least a re-capping will be disappointed; H-P built things to last back in the day.

[Kerry] puts the plotter through its paces by programming an Arduino to generate a Lorenz attractor, a set of differential equations with chaotic solutions that’s perfect for an X-Y plotter. The video below shows the mesmerizing butterfly taking shape. Given the plotter’s similarity to an oscilloscope, we wonder if some SDR-based Lissajous patterns might be a fun test as well, or how it would handle musical mushrooms.

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Tiny Robot Clings To Leaves With Static Electricity

Flying is an energy-intensive activity. The birds and the bees don’t hover around incessantly like your little sister’s quadcopter. They flit to and fro, perching on branches and leaves while they plan their next move. Sure, a quadcopter can land on the ground, but then it has to spend more energy getting back to altitude. Researchers at Harvard decided to try to develop flying robots that can perch on various surfaces like insects can.

Perching on surfaces happens electrostatically. The team used an electrode patch with a foam mounting to the robot. This allows the patch to make contact with surfaces easily even if the approach is a few degrees off. This is particularly important for a tiny robot that is easily affected by even the slightest air draft. The robots were designed to be as light as possible — just 84mg — as the electrostatic force is not particularly strong.

It’s estimated that perching electrostatically for a robot of this size uses approximately 1000 times less power than during flight. This would be of great use for surveillance robots that could take up a vantage point at altitude without having to continually expend a great deal of energy to stay airborne. The abstract of the research paper notes that this method of perching was successful on wood, glass, and a leaf. It appears testing was done with tethers; it would be interesting to see if this technique would be powerful enough for a robot that carries its own power source. Makes us wonder if we ever ended up with tiny flyers that recharge from power lines?

We’re seeing more tiny flying robots every day now – the IMAV 2016 competition was a great example of the current state of the art.

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JOLED – a 3D Flip Dot Display

Flip-Dot displays are so awesome that they’re making a comeback. But awesome is nothing when you can have an insane flip-dot display that is three-dimensional with the dots floating in mid-air. Researchers at the Universities of Sussex and Bristol have built what they call JOLED, an array of floating pixels that can be controlled via a combination of ultrasonic standing waves and an electrostatic field. These “voxels” can be individually moved in space via ultrasonics, and can also be individually flipped or rotated through any angle, via the electrostatic field.

The key to the whole thing is something they call Janus Objects – hence JOLED. Janus particles have different features or chemistry on two opposite sides. A portion of each voxel is speckled with a small amount of titanium dioxide nano powder. This gives it a bipolar charge that makes it respond to the variable electrostatic field and hence capable of axial rotation. Half of each white voxel can then be covered with a contrasting color – red, blue, black – to achieve the flip dot effect. Each voxel appears to be a couple of millimeters in diameter. The ultrasonic actuators appear to be regular piezo transmitters found in every hacker’s parts bin. Transparent glass plates on opposite sides apply the variable electrostatic field.

While this is still experimental and confined to the research lab, future applications would be interesting. It would be like breaking e-ink displays out of their flat glass confines and giving them a third dimension. The short, two-minute video after the break does a good job of explaining what’s going on, so check it out. Now, who want’s to be the first to build a JOLED clock?

Thanks to [Garrow] for tipping us off about this.

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