Cheap Alternative Solvents For PCB Cleaning

If you’re in the habit of using isopropyl alcohol to clean your PCBs after soldering, you probably have a nice big jug of the stuff stashed away. If you don’t, you’re probably out of luck, since the COVID-19 pandemic has pretty much cleared IPA out of the retail market. But don’t fret: depending on where you live, alternative PCB cleaning solutions may be as close as your nearest auto parts store.

[Steven]’s search for a cheaper and perhaps more readily available substitute for his usual dedicated flux cleaner lead him to try automotive brake cleaner on a few test boards. He suspected that they might contain acetone, which is prone to yield unfortunate results with solder resist and silkscreen on PCBs, so some tests were in order. The brand he tried was Normfest Bremsenreiniger MC-1, a German brand that according to its Safety Data Sheet contains only hydrocarbons like alkanes, butane, and propane. It did a fine job cleaning all but the crustiest rosin flux without collateral damage.

In the video below, [Steven] goes through a few more brands with similar results, and we were encouraged enough by his results to check brake cleaners made for the US market. Alas, almost all of the cheap and readily available aerosols have acetone as the principle ingredient, mixed in with methanol, ethanol, and assorted ingredients that together will probably make for a bad day. About the only US-sold brand without acetone that we could find was Keller-Heartt, which lists only naptha and ethanol on its SDS. There may be others, but make sure you test whatever you find.

Aerosol solvents aren’t the only way to clean a PCB, of course. Ultrasonic cleaners do a great job, and as [Steven] discovered, they’re generally safe for most components.

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Simple Demo Shows The Potential Of Magnetic Gears

We’ve probably all used gears in our projects at one time or another, and even if we’re not familiar with the engineering details, the principles of transmitting torque through meshed teeth are pretty easy to understand. Magnetic gears, though, are a little less intuitive, which is why we appreciated stumbling upon this magnetic gear drivetrain demonstration project.

[William Fraser]’s demo may be simple, but it’s a great introduction to magnetic gearing. The stator is a block of wood with twelve bolts to act as pole pieces, closely spaced in a circle around a shaft. Both ends of the shaft have rotors, one with eleven pairs of neodymium magnets arranged in a circle with alternating polarity, and a pinion on the other side of the stator with a single pair of magnets. When the pinion is spun, the magnetic flux across the pole pieces forces the rotor to revolve in the opposite direction at a 12:1 ratio.

Watching the video below, it would be easy to assume such an arrangement would only work for low torque applications, but [William] demonstrated that the system could take a significant load before clutching out. That could even be a feature for some applications. We’ve got an “Ask Hackaday” article on magnetic gears if you want to dive a little deeper and see what these interesting mechanisms are good for.

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How Safe Is That Ultrasonic Bath For Flux Removal?

How do you clean the residual flux off your boards? There are plenty of ways to go about the job, ranging from “why bother?” to the careful application of isopropyl alcohol to every joint with a cotton swab. It seems like more and more people are turning to ultrasonic cleaners to get the job done, though, and for good reason: just dunk your board and walk away while cavitation does the work for you.

But just how safe is it to sonically blast the flux off your boards? [SDG Electronics] wanted to know, so he ran some cleaning tests to get to the bottom of things. On the face of it, dunking a PCB in an aqueous cleaning solution seems ill-advised; after all, water and electricity famously don’t mix. But assuming all the nooks and crannies of a board can be dried out before power is applied, the cleaning solution itself should be of little concern. The main beef with ultrasonic cleaning seems to be with the acoustic energy coupling with mechanical systems on boards, such as crystal oscillators or micro-electrical-mechanical systems (MEMS) components, such as accelerometers or microphones. Such components could resonate with the ultrasonic waves and be blasted to bits internally.

To test this, [SDG Electronics] built a board with various potentially vulnerable components, including the popular 32.768-kHz crystal, cut for a frequency quite close to the cleaner’s fundamental. The video below goes into some detail on the before-and-after tests, but the short story is that nothing untoward happened to any of the test circuits. Granted, no components with openings as you might find on some MEMS microphones were tested, so be careful. After all, we know that ultrasound can deal damage, and if it can levitate tiny styrofoam balls, it might just do your circuit in.

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Fail Of The Week: How Not To Re-Reflow

There’s no question that surface-mount technology has been a game-changer for PCB design. It means easier automated component placement and soldering, and it’s a big reason why electronics have gotten so cheap. It’s not without problems, though, particularly when you have no choice but to include through-hole components on your SMT boards.

[James Clough] ran into this problem recently, and he tried to solve it by reflowing through-hole connectors onto assembled SMT boards. The boards are part of his electronic lead screw project, an accessory for lathes that makes threading operations easier and more flexible. We covered the proof-of-concept for the project; he’s come a long way since then and is almost ready to start offering the ELS for sale. The PCBs were partially assembled by the board vendor, leaving off a couple of through-hole connectors and the power jack. [James]’ thought was to run the boards back through his reflow oven to add the connectors, so he tried a few experiments first on the non-reflow rated connectors. The Phoenix-style connectors discolored and changed dimensionally after a trip through the oven, and the plastic on the pin headers loosened its grip on the pins. The female header socket and the power jack fared better, so he tried reflowing them, but it didn’t work out too well, at least for the headers. He blames poor heat conduction due to the lack of contact between the board and the reflow oven plate, and we agree; perhaps an aluminum block milled to fit snugly between the header sockets would help.

Hats off to [James] for trying to save his future customers a few steps on assembly, but it’s pretty clear there are no good shortcuts here. And we highly recommend the electronic leadscrew playlist to anyone interested in the convergence of machine tools and electronics.

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Jigsaw Motor Uses PCB Coils For Radial Flux

Electric motors are easy to make; remember those experiments with wire-wrapped nails? But what’s easy to make is often hard to engineer, and making a motor that’s small, light, and powerful can be difficult. [Carl Bugeja] however is not one to back down from a challenge, and his tiny “jigsaw” PCB motor is the latest result of his motor-building experiments.

We’re used to seeing brushless PCB motors from [Carl], but mainly of the axial-flux variety, wherein the stator coils are arranged so their magnetic lines of force are parallel to the motor’s shaft – his tiny PCB motors are a great example of this geometry. While those can be completely printed, they’re far from optimal. So, [Carl] started looking at ways to make a radial-flux PCB motor. His design has six six-layer PCB coils soldered perpendicular to a hexagonal end plate. The end plate has traces to connect the coils in a star configuration, and together with a matching top plate, they provide support for tiny bearings. The rotor meanwhile is a 3D-printed cube with press-fit neodymium magnets. Check out the build in the video below.

Connected to an ESC, the motor works decently, but not spectacularly. [Carl] admits that more tweaking is in order, and we have little doubt he’ll keep optimizing the design. We like the look of this, and we’re keen to see it improved.

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The Fascinating World Of Solder Alloys And Metallurgy

Solder is the conductive metal glue that one uses to stick components together. If you get the component and the PCB hot enough, and melt a little solder in the joint, it will stay put and conduct reliably. But it’s far from simple.

There are many different solder alloys, and even the tip of the soldering iron itself is a multi-material masterpiece. In this article, we’ll take a look at the metallurgy behind soldering, and you’ll see why soldering tip maintenance, and regular replacement, is a good idea. Naturally, we’ll also touch upon the role that lead plays in solder alloys, and what the effect is of replacing it with other metals when going lead-free. What are you soldering with? Continue reading “The Fascinating World Of Solder Alloys And Metallurgy”

Hacking The Ionosphere, For Science

Imagine what it must have been like for the first human to witness an aurora. It took a while for our species to migrate from its equatorial birthplace to latitudes where auroras are common, so it was a fairly recent event geologically speaking. Still, that first time seeing the shimmers and ribbons playing across a sky yet to be marred by light pollution must have been terrifying and thrilling, and like other displays of nature’s power, it probably fueled stories of gods and demons. The myths and legends born from ignorance of what an aurora actually represents seem quaint to most of us, but it was as good a model as our ancestors needed to explain the world around them.

Our understanding of auroras needs to be a lot deeper, though, because we now know that they are not only a beautiful atmospheric phenomenon but also a critical component in the colossal electromagnetic system formed by our planet and our star. Understanding how it works is key to everything from long-distance communication to keeping satellites in orbit to long-term weather predictions.

But how exactly does one study an aurora? Something that’s so out of reach and so evanescent seems like it would be hard to study. While it’s not exactly easy science to do, it is possible to directly study auroras, and it involves some interesting technology that actually changes them, somehow making the nocturnal light show even more beautiful.

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