Kilopower: NASA’s Offworld Nuclear Reactor

Here on Earth, the ability to generate electricity is something we take for granted. We can count on the sun to illuminate solar panels, and the movement of air and water to spin turbines. Fossil fuels, for all their downsides, have provided cheap and reliable power for centuries. No matter where you may find yourself on this planet, there’s a way to convert its many natural resources into electrical power.

But what happens when humans first land on Mars, a world that doesn’t offer these incredible gifts? Solar panels will work for a time, but the sunlight that reaches the surface is only a fraction of what the Earth receives, and the constant accumulation of dust makes them a liability. In the wispy atmosphere, the only time the wind could potentially be harnessed would be during one of the planet’s intense storms. Put simply, Mars can’t provide the energy required for a human settlement of any appreciable size.

The situation on the Moon isn’t much better. Sunlight during the lunar day is just as plentiful as it is on Earth, but night on the Moon stretches for two dark and cold weeks. An outpost at the Moon’s South Pole would receive more light than if it were built in the equatorial areas explored during the Apollo missions, but some periods of darkness are unavoidable. With the lunar surface temperature plummeting to -173 °C (-280 °F) when the Sun goes down, a constant supply of energy is an absolute necessity for long-duration human missions to the Moon.

Since 2015, NASA and the United States Department of Energy have been working on the Kilopower project, which aims to develop a small, lightweight, and extremely reliable nuclear reactor that they believe will fulfill this critical role in future off-world exploration. Following a series of highly successful test runs on the prototype hardware in 2017 and 2018, the team believes the miniaturized power plant could be ready for a test flight as early as 2022. Once fully operational, this nearly complete re-imagining of the classic thermal reactor could usher in a whole new era of space exploration.

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High End PC Gets A Rustic Woodworking Piece Of Art For A Case

As [Matt] from [DIY Perks] was about to assemble a new PC, he decided to take a unique direction when it came to building a case. Despite the appearance of a woodworking piece with weird industrial radiators, there is actually a full-fledged, high-end PC hidden inside.

Those radiators are a pair of almost-the-biggest-you-can-buy heatsinks — one of which has been modified to fit the graphics card. Separating the graphics card’s stock cooling fan unit cut down significantly on noise and works with the stringent space requirements of the build. Those fans however keep other components on the card cool, so [Matt] cut pieces of copper plate to affix to these areas and joined them to the heatsink with a heat pipe, bent to shape. The elm wood case then began to take shape around the graphics card — cut into pieces to accommodate the heat pipes, and sealed with black tack to dampen the ‘coil whine’ of the GPU; it turns out the likely culprit are the MOSFETs, but close enough.

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Building A DIY Heat Pipe

Once the secret design tool for aerospace designers, the heat pipe is a common fixture now thanks to the demands of PC CPU cooling. Heat pipes can transfer lots of energy from a hot side to a cold side and is useful when you need to cool something where having a fan near the hot part isn’t feasible for some reason. Unlike active cooling, a heat pipe doesn’t require any external power or pumps, either.

[James Biggar] builds his own heat pipes using copper tubing. You can see a video of one being made, below. There’s not much to it, just a copper pipe with some water in it. However, [James] gets the water boiling to reduce the pressure in the tube before sealing it, which is an interesting trick.

One limitation of his technique is that there is no internal wick. That means the tube can only be installed vertically. If you haven’t looked at heat pipes before, most of them do have a wick. The idea is that some working fluid is in the pipe. You select that fluid so that it boils at or below the temperature you want to handle. The hot vapor rushes to the cool side of the pipe (carrying heat) where you have a large heatsink that may have a fan or active cooling system. The vapor condenses and–in this case–drops back to the bottom of the tube. However, if there is a wick, capillary action will return the fluid to the hot end of the tube.

You might think that using water as the working fluid would limit you to 100°C, but remember, [James’] technique lowers the pressure in the tube. At a lower pressure, the water will boil at a lower temperature.

We’ve seen heat pipes and wine chillers used to cool a PC before. In fact, we’ve even seen them in builds of completely fanless PCs.

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