Water And Molten Aluminium Is A Dangerous Combination

It is not uncommon for a Hackaday writer to trawl the comments section of a given article, looking for insights or to learn something new. Often, those with experience in various fields will share kernels of knowledge or raise questions on a particular topic. Recently, I happened to be glazing over an article on aluminium casting with interest, given my own experience in the field. One comment in particular caught my eye.

 And no, the water won’t cause a steam explosion. There’s a guy on youtube (myfordlover, I think) who disproves that myth with molten iron, pouring the iron into water, pouring water into a ladle of molten iron and so on. We’ll be happy to do a video demonstrating this with aluminum if so desired.

Having worked for some time in an aluminium die casting plant, I sincerely hope [John] did not attempt this feat. While there are a number of YouTube videos showing that this can be done without calamity, there are many showing the exact opposite. Mixing molten aluminium and water often ends very poorly, causing serious injury or even fatalities in the workplace. Let’s dive deeper to see why that is.

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SkyWater PDK Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, September 16 at noon Pacific for the CNC on the SkyWater PDK Hack Chat with Tim “mithro” Ansell, Mohamed Kassem, and Michael Gielda!

We’ve seen incredible strides made in the last decade or so towards democratizing manufacturing. Things that it once took huge, vertically integrated industries with immense factories at their disposal are now commonly done on desktop CNC machines and 3D printers. Open-source software has harnessed the brainpower of millions of developers into tools that rival what industry uses, and oftentimes exceeds them. Using these tools and combining them with things like on-demand PCB production and contract assembly services, and you can easily turn yourself into a legit manufacturer.

This model of pushing manufacturing closer to the Regular Joe and Josephine only goes so far, though. Your designs have pretty much been restricted to chips made by one or the other big manufacturers, which means pretty much anyone else could come up with the same thing. That’s all changing now thanks to SkyWater PDK, the first manufacturable, open-source process-design kit. With the tools in the PDK, anyone can design a chip for the SkyWater foundry’s 130-nm process.  And the best part? It’s free — as in beer. That’s right, you can get an open-source chip built for nothing during chip manufacturing runs that start as early as this November and go through 2021.

We’re sure this news will stir a bunch of questions, so Tim Ansell, a software engineer at Google who goes by the handle “mithro” will drop by the Hack Chat to discuss the particulars. He’ll be joined by Mohamed Kassem, CTO and co-founder of efabless.com, and Michael Gielda, VP of Business Development at Antmicro. Together they’ll field your questions about this exciting development, and they’ll walk us through just what it takes to turn your vision into silicon.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, September 16 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones baffle you as much as us, we have a handy time zone converter.

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 Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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Creating A Custom ASIC With The First Open Source PDK

A process design kit (PDK) is a by now fairly standard part of any transformation of a new chip design into silicon. A PDK describes how a design maps to a foundry’s tools, which itself are described by a DRM, or design rule manual. The FOSSi foundation now reports on a new, open PDK project launched by Google and SkyWater Technology. Although the OpenPDK project has been around for a while, it is a closed and highly proprietary system, aimed at manufacturers and foundries.

The SkyWater Open Source PDK on Github is listed as a collaboration between Google and SkyWater Technology Foundry  to provide a fully open source PDK and related sources. This so that one can create manufacturable designs at the SkyWater foundry, that target the 130 nm node. Open tools here should mean a far lower cost of entry than is usually the case.

Although a quite old process node at this point (~19 years), it should nevertheless still be quite useful for a range of applications, especially those that merge digital and analog circuitry. SkyWater lists their SKY130 node technology stack as:

  • Support for internal 1.8V with 5.0V I/Os (operable at 2.5V)
  • 1 level of local interconnect
  • 5 levels of metal
  • Inductor-capable
  • High sheet rho poly resistor
  • Optional MiM capacitors
  • Includes SONOS shrunken cell
  • Supports 10V regulated supply
  • HV extended-drain NMOS and PMOS

It should be noted that use of this open source PDK is deemed experimental at this point in time, and should not be used for any commercial or otherwise sensitive applications.

Header image: Peellden/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Retrotechtacular: The Art Of The Foundry

Mention the term “heavy industry” and the first thing to come to mind might well be the metal foundry. With immense machines and cauldrons of molten metal being shuttled about by crane and rail, the image of the foundry is like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, with fumes filling a vast impersonal factory, and sparks flying through the air. It looks like a dangerous place, as much to the soul as to the body, as workers file in each day to suffer mindlessly at the hearths and ladles, consumed in dirty, exhausting work even as it consumes them.

Things are not always as they appear, of course. While there’s no doubting the risks associated with working in a foundry such as the sprawling Renfrew works of Babcock and Wilcox Ltd. in the middle of the previous century, as the video below shows the work there was anything but mindless, and the products churned out by the millions from this factory and places like it throughout the world were critical to today’s technology.

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Fail Of The Week: When Good Foundries Go Bad

Like many of us, [Tony] was entranced by the idea of casting metal, and set about building the tools he’d need to melt aluminum for lost-PLA casting. Little did he know that he was about to exceed the limits of his system and melt a hole in his patio.

[Tony]’s tale of woe begins innocently enough, and where it usually begins for wannabe metal casters: with [The King of Random]’s homemade foundry-in-a-bucket. It’s just a steel pail with a homebrew refractory lining poured in place, with a hole near the bottom to act as a nozzle for forced air, or tuyère. [Tony]’s build followed the plans pretty faithfully, but lacking the spent fire extinguisher [The King] used for a crucible in the original build, he improvised and used the bottom of an old propane cylinder. A test firing with barbecue charcoal sort of worked, but it was clear that more heat was needed. So [Tony] got hold of some fine Welsh anthracite coal, which is where the fun began. With the extra heat, the foundry became a mini-blast furnace that melted the thin steel crucible, dumping the molten aluminum into the raging coal fire. The video below shows the near catastrophe, and we hope that once [Tony] changed his pants, he hustled off to buy a cheap graphite or ceramic crucible for the next firing.

All kidding aside, this is a vivid reminder of the stakes when something unexpected (or entirely predictable) goes wrong, and the need to be prepared to deal with it. A bucket of dry sand to smother a fire might be a good idea, and protective clothing is a must. And it pays to manage your work area to minimize potential collateral damage, too — we doubt that patio will ever be the same again.

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A Different Use For Microwave Oven: Melting Aluminum

Microwave ovens are a treasure trove of useful parts: transformers, an HV capacitor, a piezo speaker, and a high torque motor, to name just a few. In a new twist, [Rulof Maker] strips all that out and uses just the metal case to make a furnace for melting aluminum, copper and bronze.

His heat source is a quartet of 110 volt, 450 watt quartz heating elements which he mounts inside in the back. To reduce heat loss, he lines the walls with ceramic fiber insulation. Unfortunately, that includes covering the inside of the window, so there’s no pressing your nose against the glass while you watch the aluminum pieces turn to liquid. If you’re going to try making one of these yourself then you may want to consider adding a fuse.

It does the job though. In around nine minutes he melts enough scrap aluminum in a stainless steel bowl to pour into a mold for a test piece. But don’t take our word for it, see for yourself in the video below.

If want more information on what useful parts are inside then check out this primer. Or you can leave the parts in and use the oven as is for melting lead, but keep a fire extinguisher handy.

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Move Over Aluminum: Cast Iron For The Home Foundry

When it comes to choice of metals that can be melted in the home foundry, it’s a little like [Henry Ford]’s famous quip: you can melt any metal you want, as long as it’s aluminum. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; there’s a lot you can accomplish by casting aluminum. But imagine what you could accomplish by recycling cast iron instead.

It looks like [luckygen1001] knows a thing or two about slinging hot metal around. The video below shows a fairly expansive shop and some pretty unique tools he uses to recycle cast iron; we were especially impressed with the rig he uses to handle the glowing crucibles from a respectful distance. The cast iron comes from a cheap and abundant source: car disc brake rotors. Usually available free for the asking at the local brake shop, he scores them with an angle grinder and busts them into manageable chunks with a hammer before committing them to the flames. The furnace itself is quite a thing, running on a mixture of diesel and waste motor oil and sounding for all the world like a jet engine starting up. [luckygen1001] had to play with the melt, adding lumps of ferrosilicon alloy to get a cast iron with better machining properties than the original rotors. It’s an interesting lesson in metallurgy, as well as a graphic example of how not to make a flask for molding cast iron.

Cast iron from the home shop opens up a lot of possibilities. A homemade cast aluminum lathe is one thing, but one with cast iron parts would be even better. And if you use a lot of brake rotors for your homebrew cast iron lathe, it might require special handling.

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