Got Oxygen? Future Mars Missions Are Relying On The MOXIE Of Perseverance

The rule of thumb with planetary exploration so far has been, “What goes up, stays up.” With the exception of the Moon and a precious few sample return missions to asteroids and comets, once a spacecraft heads out, it’s never seen again, either permanently plying the void of interplanetary or interstellar space, or living out eternity on the surface of some planet, whether as a monument to the successful mission that got it there or the twisted wreckage of a good attempt.

At the risk of jinxing things, all signs point to us getting the trip to Mars reduced to practice, which makes a crewed mission to Mars something that can start turning from a dream to a plan. But despite what some hardcore Martian-wannabees say, pretty much everyone who goes to Mars is going to want to at least have the option of returning, and the logistical problems with that are legion. Chief among them will be the need for propellants to make the return trip. Lugging them from Earth would be difficult, to say the least, but if an instrument the size of a car battery that hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance has anything to say about it, future astronauts might just be making their own propellants, literally pulling them out of thin air.

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Fueling With Ammonia

There’s a major push now to find energy sources with smaller carbon footprints. The maritime shipping industry, according to IEEE Spectrum, is going towards ammonia. Burning ammonia produces no CO2 and it isn’t hard to make. It doesn’t require special storage techniques as hydrogen does and it has ten times the energy density of a modern lithium-ion battery.

You can burn ammonia for internal combustion or use it in a fuel cell. However, there are two problems. First, no ships are currently using the fuel and second most ammonia today is made using a very carbon-intensive process. However it is possible to create “green” ammonia, and projects in Finland, Germany, and Norway are on schedule to start using ammonia-powered ships over the next couple of years.

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Tech Hidden In Plain Sight: Gas Pumps

Ask someone who isn’t technically inclined how a TV signal works or how a cell phone works, or even how a two-way switch in a hall light works and you are likely to get either a blank stare or a wildly improbable explanation. But there are some things so commonplace that even the most tech-savvy of us don’t bother thinking about. One of these things is the lowly gas pump.

Gas pumps are everywhere and it’s a safe bet to assume everyone reading this has used one at some point, most of use on a regular basis. But what’s really going on there?

Most of it is pretty easy to figure out. As the name implies, there must be a pump. There’s some way to tell how much is pumping and how much it costs and, today, some way to take the payment. But what about the automatic shut off? It isn’t done with some fancy electronics, that mechanism dates back decades. Plus, we’re talking about highly combustible materials, there has to be more to it then just a big tank of gas and a pump. Safety is paramount and, experientially, we don’t hear about gas stations blowing up two or three times a day, so there must be some pretty stout safety features. Let’s pay homage to those silent safety features and explore the tricks of the gasoline trade.

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Fail Of The Week: How Not To Watercool A PC

To those who choose to overclock their PCs, it’s often a “no expense spared” deal. Fancy heat sinks, complicated liquid cooling setups, and cool clear cases to show off all the expensive guts are all part of the charm. But not everyone’s pockets are deep enough for off-the-shelf parts, so experimentation with cheaper, alternatives, like using an automotive fuel pump to move the cooling liquid, seems like a good idea. In practice — not so much.

The first thing we thought of when we saw the title of [BoltzBrain]’s video was a long-ago warning from a mechanic to never run out of gas in a fuel-injected car. It turns out that the gasoline acts as a coolant and lubricant for the electric pump, and running the tank dry with the power still applied to the pump quickly burns it out. So while [BoltzBrain] expected to see corrosion on the brushes from his use of water as a working fluid, we expected to see seized bearings as the root cause failure. Looks like we were wrong: at about the 6:30 mark, you can see clear signs of corrosion on the copper wires connecting to the brushes. It almost looks like the Dremel tool cut the wire, but that green copper oxide is the giveaway. We suspect the bearings aren’t in great shape, either, but that’s probably secondary to the wires corroding.

Whatever the root cause, it’s an interesting tour inside a common part, and the level of engineering needed to build a brushed motor that runs bathed in a highly flammable fluid is pretty impressive. We liked the axial arrangement of the brushes and commutator especially. We wonder if fuel pumps could still serve as a PC cooler — perhaps changing to a dielectric fluid would do the trick.

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Azobenzene Stores Solar Energy

Probably the most efficient way to convert solar energy into electricity is the old fashioned way, heating water into steam and turning a turbine. This remains a messy affair though and you don’t really want a steam boiler on your roof, so solar cells are popular. However, there’s some new research showing how a molecule can absorb solar energy, store it, and then release the heat on demand years later. This could offer new ways to collect and even transport solar power. This new molecule, derived from azobenzene, holds immense promise to change the way we work with solar power.

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Plasma-Powered Thrusters For Your Homebrew Satellite Needs

It seems as though every week we see something that clearly shows we’re living in the future. The components we routinely incorporate into our projects would have seemed like science fiction only a few short years ago, but now we buy them online and have them shipped to us for pennies. And what can say we’ve arrived in the future more than off-the-shelf plasma thrusters for the DIY microsatellite market?

Although [Michael Bretti] does tell us that he plans to sell these thrusters eventually, they’re not quite ready for the market yet. The AIS-gPPT3-1C series that’s currently under testing is designed for the micro-est of satellites, the PocketQube, a format with a unit size only 5 cm on a side – an eighth the size of a 1U CubeSat. The thrusters are solid-fueled, with blocks of Teflon, PEEK, or Ultem that are ablated by a stream of plasma. The gaseous exhaust is accelerated and shaped by a magnetic nozzle that’s integrated right into the thruster. The thruster is mounted directly to a PCB containing the high-voltage supplies and control electronics to interface with the PocketQube’s systems. The 34-gram thrusters have enough fuel for perhaps 500 firings, although that and the specifics of performance are yet to be tested.

If you have any interest at all in space engineering or propulsion systems, [Michael]’s site is worth a look. There’s a wealth of data there, and reading it will give you a great appreciation for plasma physics. We’ve been down that road a lot lately, with cold plasma, thin-film plasma deposition, and even explaining the mystery of plasmatic grapes.

Thanks to [miguekf] for the tip.

Micro Chainsaw Gets A Much Needed Nitro Power Boost

When life hands you the world’s smallest chainsaw, what’s there to do except make it even more ridiculous? That’s what [JohnnyQ90] did when he heavily modified a mini-electric chainsaw with a powerful RC car engine.

The saw in question, a Bosch EasyCut with “Nanoblade technology,” can only be defined as a chainsaw in the loosest of senses. It’s a cordless tool intended for light pruning and the like, and desperately in need of the [Tim the Toolman Taylor] treatment. The transmogrification began with a teardown of the drivetrain and addition of a custom centrifugal clutch for the 1.44-cc nitro RC car engine. The engine needed a custom base to mount it inside the case, and the original PCB made the perfect template. The original case lost a lot of weight to the bandsaw and Dremel, a cooling fan was 3D-printed, and a fascinatingly complex throttle linkage tied everything together. With a fuel tank hiding in the new 3D-printed handle, the whole thing looks like it was always supposed to have this engine. The third video below shows it in action; unfortunately, with the engine rotating the wrong direction and no room for an idler gear, [JohnnyQ90] had to settle for flipping the bar upside down to get it to cut. But with some hacks it’s the journey that interests us more than the destination.

This isn’t [JohnnyQ90]’s first nitro rodeo — he’s done nitro conversions on a cordless drill and a Dremel before. You should also check out his micro Tesla turbine, too, especially if you appreciate fine machining.

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