A Dramatic Demo of AC Versus DC Switching

Switches seem to be the simplest of electrical components – just two pieces of metal that can be positioned to either touch each other or not. As such it would seem that it shouldn’t matter whether a switch is used for AC or DC. While that’s an easy and understandable assumption, it can also be a dangerous one, as this demo of AC and DC switching dramatically reveals.

Using a very simple test setup, consisting of an electric heater for a load, a variac to control the voltage, and a homemade switch, [John Ward] walks us through the details of what happens when those contacts get together. With low-voltage AC, the switch contacts exhibit very little arcing, and even with the voltage cranked up all the way, little more than a brief spark can be seen on either make or break. Then [John] built a simple DC supply with a big rectifier and a couple of capacitors to smooth things out and went through the same tests. Even at a low DC voltage, the arc across the switch contacts was dramatic, particularly upon break. With the voltage cranked up to the full 240-volts of the UK mains, [John]’s switch was essentially a miniature arc welder, with predictable results as the plastic holding the contacts melted. Don your welding helmet and check out the video below.

As dramatic as the demo is, it doesn’t mean we won’t ever be seeing DC in the home. It just means that a little extra engineering is needed to make sure that all the components are up to snuff.

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3D Printer Guardian Watches for Worst-case Failures

Some devices have one job to do, but that job can have many facets. To [jmcservv], an example of this is the job of protecting against worst-case failures in a 3D printer, and it led him to develop the 3D Printer Watchdog Guardian. When it comes to fire, secondary protection is the name of the game because it’s one thing to detect thermal runaway and turn off a heater, but what if that isn’t enough? The MOSFET controlling the heater could have failed closed and can no longer be turned off in a normal sense. In such cases, some kind of backup is needed. Of course, a protection system should also notify an operator of any serious problem, but what’s the best way to do that? These are the kinds of issues that [jmcservv] is working to address with his watchdog, which not only keeps a careful eye on any heating elements in the system, but can take a variety of actions as a result.

Some outcomes (like fire) are bad enough that it’s worth the extra work and cost of additional protection, and that’s the thinking that has led [jmcservv] to submit his watchdog system for The Hackaday Prize.

Friday Hack Chat: Fire and Cars

Summer is here, and it’s time for the question on everyone’s mind: how are they going to get the fuselage of a 747 from the California desert to Burning Man? You can’t put it on a train, and it’s much wider than any truck.

This Friday, we’re not going to be answering the modern-day riddle of the Sphinx, but we are going to the talking about other art cars. For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be discussing dragons made out of school buses and pyrotechnics.

Our guest for this Hack Chat will be [Kevin Bracken], best known as the founder of International Pillow Fight Day, but now he’s the project lead fo Heavy Meta, Canada’s largest art car and fire-breathing dragon sculpture/stage. Heavy Meta is a 30-foot long mutant vehicle with flame effects and a 15,000 watt sound system. It’s also the 3tress, a 2,000 square foot workshop founded with the purpose of building this gigantic art car, and it’s the Toronto Art Car Community, a group of people tasked with manufacturing gigantic lumbering behemoths.

Kevin will be discussing how the Heavy Meta crew transformed a GMC school bus into a dragon, how the team learned to build flame effects, how the pneumatics work, and what it’s like to be on tour with half a dozen Maker Faires.

During this Hack Chat, we’ll be talking about:

  • What an art car is
  • How do you make the electronics
  • What precautions do you take to keep it working on the road
  • How do you control flame effects
  • What are the legal and regulatory considerations of art cars

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Hack Chat Event Page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.join-hack-chat

Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week is just like any other, and we’ll be gathering ’round our video terminals at noon, Pacific, on Friday, July 6th.  Here’s a clock counting down the time until the Hack Chat starts.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Émilie du Châtelet: An Energetic Life

Émilie du Châtelet lived a wild, wild life. She was a brilliant polymath who made important contributions to the Enlightenment, including adding a mathematical statement of conservation of energy into her French translation of Newton’s Principia, debunking the phlogiston theory of fire, and suggesting that what we would call infrared light carried heat.

She had good company; she was Voltaire’s lover and companion for fifteen years, and she built a private research institution out of a château with him before falling in love with a younger poet. She was tutored in math by Maupertuis and corresponded with Bernoulli and Euler. She was an avid gambler and handy with a sword. She died early, at 41 years, but those years that she did live were pretty amazing. Continue reading “Émilie du Châtelet: An Energetic Life”

Fire. Vortex. Cannon. Need We Say More?

Tornadoes are a rightfully feared natural disaster. Fire tornadoes are an especially odious event to contend with — on top of whatever else is burning. But, a fire vortex cannon? That’s some awesome eye candy.

The madman behind this cannon belching huge gouts of fire is none other than Youtuber [JAIRUS OF ALL]. This build is actually an upgrade to one of his previous projects — a fire tornado gun that burned itself out and is now twice-revived — and is arguably better at creating a proper vortex to direct the flames. Built around a modified NERF gun, a pair of 60mm electric ducted fans with some additional venting — and tunable via a speed controller — direct the airflow through slits in a vortex chamber. A backpack of liquid propane literally fuels this phoenix of a flamethrower, so [JAIRUS] had plenty of time to put together some great footage. Check it out!

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Kapton: Miracle Material with a Tragic History

On a balmy September evening in 1998, Swissair flight 111 was in big trouble. A fire in the cockpit ceiling had at first blinded the pilots with smoke, leaving them to rely on instruments to divert the plane, en route from New York to Geneva, to an emergency landing at Halifax Airport in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. But the fire raging above and behind the pilots, intense enough to melt the aluminum of the flight deck, consumed wiring harness after wiring harness, cutting power to vital flight control systems. With no way to control the plane, the MD-11 hit the Atlantic ocean about six miles off the coast. All 229 souls were lost.

It would take months to recover and identify the victims. The 350-g crash broke the plane into two million pieces which would not reveal their secrets until much later. But eventually, the problem was traced to a cascade of failures caused by faulty wiring in the new in-flight entertainment system that spread into the cockpit and doomed the plane. A contributor to these failures was the type of insulation used on the plane’s wiring, blamed by some as the root cause of the issue: the space-age polymer Kapton.

No matter where we are, we’re surrounded by electrical wiring. Bundles of wires course with information and power, and the thing that protects us is the thin skin of insulation over the conductor. We trust these insulators, and in general our faith is rewarded. But like any other engineered system, failure is always an option. At the time, Kapton was still a relatively new wonder polymer, with an unfortunate Achilles’ heel that can turn the insulator into a conductor, and at least in the case of flight 111, set a fire that would bring a plane down out of the sky.

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The Engineering Case for Fusing Your LED Strips

Modern LED strips are magical things. The WS2812 has allowed the quick and easy creation of addressable RGB installations, revolutionizing the science of cool glowy things. However, this accessibility means that it’s easy to get in over your head and make some simple mistakes that could end catastrophically. [Thomas] is here to help, outlining a common mistake made when building with LED strips that is really rather dangerous.

The problem is the combination of hardware typically used to run these LED strings. They’re quite bright and draw significant amounts of power, each pixel drawing up to 60 mA at full-white. In a string of just 10 pixels, the strip is already drawing 600 mA. For this reason, it’s common for people to choose quite hefty power supplies that can readily deliver several amps to run these installations.

It’s here that the problem starts. Typically, wires used to hook up the LED strips are quite thin and the flex strips themselves have a significant resistance, too. This means it’s possible to short circuit an LED strip without actually tripping the overcurrent protection on something like an ATX power supply, which may be fused at well over 10 amps. With the resistance of the wires and strip acting as a current limiter, the strip can overheat to the point of catching fire while the power supply happily continues to pump in the juice. In a home workshop under careful supervision, this may be a manageable risk. In an unattended installation, things could be far worse.

Thankfully, the solution is simple. By installing an appropriately rated fuse for the number of LEDs in the circuit, the installation becomes safer, as the fuse will burn out under a short circuit condition even if the power supply is happy to supply the current. With the example of 10 LEDs drawing 600 mA, a 1 amp fuse would do just fine to protect the circuit in the event of an accidental short.

It’s a great explanation of a common yet dangerous problem, and [Thomas] backs it up by using a thermal camera to illustrate just how hot things can get in mere seconds. Armed with this knowledge, you can now safely play with LEDs instead of fire. But now that you’re feeling confident, why not check out these eyeball-searing 3 watt addressable LEDs?

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