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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Road Pollution Doesn’t Just Come From Exhaust

Alumni from Innovation Design Engineering at Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art want to raise awareness of a road pollution source we rarely consider: tire wear. If you think about it, it is obvious. Our tires wear out, and that has to go somewhere, but what surprises us is how fast it happens. Single-use plastic is the most significant source of oceanic pollution, but tire microplastics are next on the naughty list. The team calls themselves The Tyre Collective, and they’re working on a device to collect tire particles at the source.

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How About A Nice Cuppa TEA Laser?

If lasers are your hobby, you face a conundrum. There are so many off-the-shelf lasers that use so many different ways of amplifying and stimulating light that the whole thing can be downright — unstimulating. Keeping things fresh therefore requires rolling your own lasers, and these DIY nitrogen TEA and dye lasers seem like a fun way to go.

These devices are the work of [Les Wright], who takes us on a somewhat lengthy but really informative tour of transversely excited atmospheric (TEA) lasers. The idea with TEA lasers is that a gas, often carbon dioxide in commercial lasers but either air or pure nitrogen in this case, is excited by a high-voltage discharge across long parallel electrodes. TEA lasers are dead easy to make — we’ve covered them a few times — but as [Les] points out, that ease of construction leads to designs that are more ad hoc than engineered.

In the video below, [Les] presents three designs that are far more robust than the typical TEA laser. His lasers use capacitors made from aluminum foil with polyethylene sheets for dielectric, sometimes with the addition of beautiful “doorknob” ceramic caps too. A spark gap serves as a very fast switch to discharge high voltage across the laser channel, formed by two closely spaced aluminum hex bars. Both the spark gap and the laser channel can be filled with low-pressure nitrogen. [Les] demonstrates the power and the speed of his lasers, which can even excite laser emissions in a plain cuvette of rhodamine dye — no mirrors needed! Although eye protection is, of course.

These TEA lasers honestly look like a ton of fun to build and play with. You might not be laser welding or levitating stuff with them, but that’s hardly the point.

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Get Compressed Air From Falling Water With The Trompe

If you’re like us, understanding the processes and methods of the early Industrial Revolution involved some hand waving. Take the blast furnace, which relies on a steady supply of compressed air to stoke the fire and supply the oxygen needed to smelt iron from ore. How exactly was air compressed before electricity? We assumed it would have been from a set of bellows powered by a water wheel, and of course that method was used, but it turns out there’s another way to get compressed air from water: the trompe.

As [Grady] from Practical Engineering explains in the short video below, the trompe was a clever device used to create a steady supply of high-pressure compressed air. To demonstrate the process, he breaks out his seemingly inexhaustible supply of clear acrylic piping to build a small trompe. The idea is to use water falling around a series of tubes to create a partial vacuum and entrain air bubbles. The bubbles are pulled down a vertical tube by the turbulence of the water, and then enter a horizontal section where the flow evens out. The bubbles rise to the top of the horizontal tube where they are tapped off by another vertical tube, as the degassed water continues into a second vertical section, the height of which determines the pressure of the stored air. It’s ingenious, requiring no power and no moving parts, and scales up well – [Grady] relates a story about one trompe that provided compressed air commercially for mines in Canada.

Need an electricity-free way to pump water instead of air? Check out this hydraulic ram pump that takes its power from the water it pumps.

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Put A Smoke Detector To Some Use

While we’re certainly not denying that smoke detectors are useful, there’s a certain kind of tragedy to the fact that most of them will never realize their true purpose of detecting smoke, and alerting us to a dangerous fire. On the other hand, [Ben] really unlocks the potential hidden deep in every smoke detector with his latest project which uses the smoke-detecting parts of a smoke detector to turn on the exhaust fan over his stove.

The project didn’t start with the noble aim of realizing the hidden and underutilized quiescent nature of a smoke alarm, though. He wanted his range exhaust fan to turn on automatically when it was needed during his (and his family’s) cooking activities. The particular range has four speeds so he wired up four relays to each of the switches in the range and programmed a Particle Photon to turn them on based on readings from an MQ-2 gas-detecting sensor.

The sensor didn’t work as well as he had hoped. It was overly sensitive to some gasses like LPG which would turn the range on full blast any time he used his cooking spray. Meanwhile, it would drift and not work properly during normal cooking. He tried disabling it and using only a temperature sensor, which didn’t work well either. Finally, he got the idea to tear apart a smoke detector and use its sensor’s analog output to inform the microcontroller of the current need for an exhaust fan. Now that that’s done, [Ben] might want to add some additional safety features to his stovetop too.

My Oscilloscope Uses Fire

If you want to visualize sound waves, you reach for your oscilloscope, right? That wasn’t an option in 1905 so physicist [Heinrich Rubens] came up with another way involving flames. [Luke Guigliano] and [Will Peterson] built one of these tubes — known as a Rubens’ tube — and will show you how you can, too. You can see a video of their results, below. Just in case a flame oscilloscope isn’t enough to attract your interest, they are driving the thing with a theremin for extra nerd points.

The guys show a short flame run and one with tall flames. The results are surprising, especially with the short flames. Of course, the time base is the length of the tube, so that limits your measurements. The tube has many gas jets along the length and with a sound source, the height of the flames correspond to the air pressure from the sound inside the tube.

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Detect Elevated Carbon Monoxide (Levels)

The molar mass of carbon monoxide (CO) is 28.0, and the molar mass of air is 28.8, so CO will rise in an ambient atmosphere. It makes sense to detect it farther from the ground, but getting a tall ladder is not convenient and certainly doesn’t make for fast deployment. What do you do if you don’t care for heights and want to know the CO levels in a gymnasium or a tall foyer? Here to save the day, is the Red Balloon Carbon Monoxide Detector. generates the diagram and code to operate the CO sensor and turn a healthy green light to a warning red if unsafe levels are detected. The user holds the batteries, Arduino, and light while a red balloon lifts the sensor up to fifteen feet, or approximately five three meters. It is an analog sensor which needs some time to warm up so it pays to be warned about that wire length and startup.

Having a CO sentinel is a wise choice for this odorless gas.

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