Mining And Refining: Helium

With a seemingly endless list of shortages of basic items trotted across newsfeeds on a daily basis, you’d be pardoned for not noticing any one shortage in particular. But in among the shortages of everything from eggs to fertilizers to sriracha sauce has been a growing realization that we may actually be running out of something so fundamental that it could have repercussions that will be felt across all aspects of our technological society: helium.

The degree to which helium is central to almost every aspect of daily life is hard to overstate. Helium’s unique properties, like the fact that it remains liquid at just a few degrees above absolute zero, contribute to its use in countless industrial processes. From leak detection and welding to silicon wafer production and cooling the superconducting magnets that make magnetic resonance imaging possible, helium has become entrenched in technology in a way that belies its relative scarcity.

But where does helium come from? As we’ll see, the second lightest element on the periodic table is not easy to come by, and considerable effort goes into extracting and purifying it enough for industrial use. While great strides are being made toward improved methods of extraction and the discovery of new deposits, for all practical purposes helium is a non-renewable resource for which there are no substitutes. So it pays to know a thing or two about how we get our hands on it.

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Helium Recovery System Saves Costs

Helium is the most common element in the universe besides hydrogen, but despite this universal abundance it is surprisingly difficult to come across on Earth. Part of the problem is that it is non-renewable, so unless it is specifically captured during mining its low density means that it simply escapes the atmosphere. For that reason [Meow] maintains a helium recovery system for a lab which is detailed in this build.

The purpose of the system is to supply a refrigerant to other projects in the lab. Liquid helium is around 4 Kelvin and is useful across a wide variety of lab tests, but it is extremely expensive to come across. [Meow]’s recovery system is given gaseous helium recovered from these tests, and the equipment turns it back into extremely cold liquid helium in a closed-cycle process. The post outlines the system as a whole plus goes over some troubleshooting that they recently had to do, and shows off a lot of the specialized tools needed as well.

Low-weight gasses like these can be particularly difficult to deal with as well because their small atomic size means they can escape fittings, plumbing, and equipment quite easily compared to other gasses. As a result, this equipment is very specialized and worth a look. For a less lab-based helium project, though, head on over to this helium-filled guitar instead.

Balloon Guitar Is An Absolute Gas, Helium Or Not

Guitars are most typically built out of wood. Whether it’s an acoustic guitar with a big open cavity, or a solid-body electric, there’s generally a whole lot of wood used in the construction. However, [Mattias Krantz] shows us that alternative construction methods are entirely possible, by building his own balloon guitar.

The balloon guitar still has a neck, bridge, and strings just like any other. However, in place of the resonant cavity of an acoustic guitar, there is provision to install a large balloon instead. It’s actually quite interesting to watch — with the balloon installed, the guitar delivers much more volume than when played without a resonant cavity at all.

The guitar was actually built to test if swapping out air in the balloon for helium would shift the pitch of the sound. Of course, a guitar’s pitch comes from the tension on the vibrating strings, so changing the gas in the resonant cavity doesn’t directly affect it. Instead, much like inhaling helium to affect the human voice, the change is to the timbre of the sound, not the fundamental pitch itself. It sounds as if the guitar has been given a subtle treble boost.

It’s a fun build, and one that shows us that it’s possible to build musical instruments in many ways, not just using traditional techniques. If you want to further play with your guitar’s sound, though, consider turning to the world of machine learning.

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About As Cold As It Gets: The Webb Telescope’s Cryocooler

If you were asked to name the coldest spot in the solar system, chances are pretty good you’d think it would be somewhere as far as possible from the ultimate source of all the system’s energy — the Sun. It stands to reason that the further away you get from something hot, the more the heat spreads out. And so Pluto, planet or not, might be a good guess for the record low temperature.

But, for as cold as Pluto gets — down to 40 Kelvin — there’s a place that much, much colder than that, and paradoxically, much closer to home. In fact, it’s only about a million miles away, and right now, sitting at a mere 6 Kelvin, the chunk of silicon at the focal plane of one of the main instruments aboard the James Webb Space telescope makes the surface of Pluto look downright balmy.

The depth of cold on Webb is all the more amazing given that mere meters away, the temperature is a sizzling 324 K (123 F, 51 C). The hows and whys of Webb’s cooling systems are chock full of interesting engineering tidbits and worth an in-depth look as the world’s newest space telescope gears up for observations.

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Indoor Blimp Sails Through The Air Using Ultrasonic Transducers

Quadcopter type drones can be flown indoors, but unless you have a lot of space, it usually just ends in a crash. The prospect of being hit in the face by the propellor blades, spinning at 10k RPM doesn’t bear thinking about, and then there’s the noise. So, as a solution for indoor photography, or operating in public spaces, they are not viable. Japanese mobile operator DOCOMO has a new take on an old idea; the blimp. But, surely even a helium filled vehicle needs blades to steer around the room, we hear you cry? Not so, if you use a pair of specialised ultrasonic transducer arrays to move the air instead! (Video, embedded below)

Three banks of thrusters provide a 180 degree steerable net force

Details are scarce, but DOCOMO have fitted a helium balloon with modules on either side that can produce a steerable thrust, allowing the vehicle to effect all the expected aerial manoeuvres with ease and grace. The module at the bottom contains the control electronics, an upwards facing RGB LED for some extra bling, and of course a video camera to capture those all-important video shots.

We’d love to find a source for those ultrasonic transducer devices, and can only guess at the physical arrangement that allows for air to pass in one direction only, to effect a net thrust. We can find a few research papers hinting at the ability to use ultrasound to propel through air, like this one (bah! IEEExplore Paywall!) but to our knowledge,  this technology is not quite in the hands of hackers just yet.

Blimps are by no means scarce on these fine pages, here is a Blimpduino, an Arduino controlled 3D printed blimp, an illuminated blimp art installation by Japanese artist [Kensho Miyoshi] and if using helium is just too darn safe for you (or if you want to help prevent this allegedly precious resource from being lost into space) you could just build a remote controlled blimp using hydrogen instead. Just don’t light a match.

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Exploring The Healing Power Of Cold Plasma

It probably won’t come as much surprise to find that a blast of hot plasma can be used to sterilize a surface. Unfortunately, said surface is likely going to look a bit worse for wear afterwards, which limits the usefulness of this particular technique. But as it turns out, it’s possible to generate a so-called “cold” plasma that offers the same cleansing properties in a much friendlier form.

While it might sound like science fiction, prolific experimenter [Jay Bowles] was able to create a reliable source of nonthermal plasma for his latest Plasma Channel video with surprisingly little in the way of equipment. Assuming you’ve already got a device capable of pumping out high-voltage, all you really need to recreate this phenomenon is a tank of helium and some tubing.

Cold plasma stopped bacterial growth in the circled area.

[Jay] takes viewers through a few of the different approaches he tried before finally settling on the winning combination of a glass pipette with a copper wire run down the center. When connected to a party store helium tank and the compact Slayer Exciter coil he built last year, the setup produced a focused jet of plasma that was cool enough to touch.

It’s beautiful to look at, but is a pretty light show all you get for your helium? To see if his device was capable of sterilizing surfaces, he inoculated a set of growth plates with bacteria collected from his hands and exposed them to the cold plasma stream. Compared to the untreated control group the reduction in bacterial growth certainly looks compelling, although the narrow jet does have a very localized effect.

If you’re just looking to keep your hands clean, some soap and warm water are probably a safer bet. But this technology does appear to have some fascinating medical applications, and as [Jay] points out, the European Space Agency has been researching the concept for some time now. Who knows? In the not so distant future, you may see a similar looking gadget at your doctor’s office. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time space-tested tech came down to us Earthlings.

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Space Shuttle Model In A Hypersonic Wind Tunnel

Mach 20 In A Wind Tunnel: Yes, It’s Rocket Science

Hypersonic speeds are defined by those exceeding Mach 5, and lately there’s been a lot of buzz about unmanned hypersonic vehicles making test flights. Vehicles returning from orbital flight also travel at hypersonic speeds as they do their best to transition back to the terrestrial realm. Before anything leaves ground though, these machines are tested in wind tunnels. [Scott Manley]’s video “How Hypersonic Wind Tunnels Recreate Mach 20” (embedded below) does a wonderful job of explaining the engineering behind wind tunnels for testing hypersonic vehicles.

While the earliest wind tunnels such as that used by the Wright Brothers were powered by simple fans, it is not possible for any propeller to surpass subsonic speeds. This is evidenced by there not being any propeller driven aircraft that can exceed Mach 1. Since an aircraft can’t reach those speeds with a propeller, it follows that a wind tunnel cannot be driven by propellers, fans, or any such device, and exceed Mach 1 wind speed, either. So it begs the question: Just how do they do it?

You might think that the answer lays in Bernoulli’s law – but it does not. You might think it involves compressing the air into smaller and smaller tubes and pipes. It doesn’t. As [Scott Manley] so expertly explains in the video below the break, it has quite a lot in common with actual rocket science.

You may be interested to know that we’ve covered some DIY wind tunnel builds as well as a small desktop wind tunnel in the past. While not hypersonic, they’re exactly what you’d want to have if you’re an aerospace hacker of any kind.

Thanks [Zane Atkins] for the tip!

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