A Field Guide To Transmission Lines

The power grid is a complicated beast, regardless of where you live. Power plants have to send energy to all of their clients at a constant frequency and voltage (regardless of the demand at any one time), and to do that they need a wide array of equipment. From transformers and voltage regulators to line reactors and capacitors, breakers and fuses, and solid-state and specialized mechanical relays, almost every branch of engineering can be found in the power grid. Of course, we shouldn’t leave out the most obvious part of the grid: the wires that actually form the grid itself.

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Old Nixie Display Rides Again As 3D-Printer Filament Meter

We’re not sure about the name of this Nixie tube filament meter that [Scott M. Baker] built. He calls it a “filadometer”, perhaps a portmanteau of “filament” and “odometer”, in which case it makes sense. It may not flow trippingly from the tongue and we can’t come up with anything better, but whatever moniker you use it’s actually a pretty cool build.

The filadometer started life as something completely different and utterly typical for Nixie tube projects – a temperature and humidity gauge. [Scott] decided to recycle the eight-tube display to keep track of his Prusa, and in doing so he reveals a pretty remarkable degree of forethought in his design process. The original Nixie display has all the usual trappings – the driver chips, the shift registers, and the high voltage power supply. What stands out is the modularity of his design: the tube sockets and drivers live on a backplane PCB, with a Raspberry Pi and a separate HV supply board plugging into it. The original display had a Model B Pi, so there was plenty of room for a new Zero W. A new printed case and a little programming to capture the filament use from Octoprint is all it took to put this nifty little build back in action. The video below shows the details.

We’re always excited to see new videos from [Scott] because we learn so much from looking over his virtual shoulder. If you haven’t checked out his stuff, take a look at his homage to the 8″ floppy or his dual-port memory hack for retro gaming.

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Cold Plasma Torch Produces A Cleansing Flame That Never Consumes

It’s basically a lightsaber. Except smaller. And with an invisible blade. And cold to the touch. But other than that, this homebrew cold plasma torch (YouTube, embedded below) is just like the Jedi’s choice in elegant weaponry.

Perhaps we shouldn’t kid [Justin] given how hard he worked on this project – seventeen prototypes before hitting on the version seen in the video below – but he himself notes the underwhelming appearance of the torch without the benefit of long-exposure photography. That doesn’t detract from how cool this build is, pun intended. As [Justin] explains, cold plasma or non-equilibrium plasma is an ionized stream of gas where the electron temperature is much hotter than the temperature of the heavier, more thermally conductive species in the stream. It’s pretty common stuff, seen commercially in everything from mercury vapor lamps to microbial sterilization.

It’s the latter use that piqued [Justin]’s interest and resulted in a solid year of prototyping before dialing in a design using a flyback transformer to delivery the high voltage to a stream of argon flowing inside a capillary tube. The quartz tube acts as a dielectric that keeps electrons from escaping and allows argon to be ionized and wafted gently from the tube before it can reach thermal equilibrium. The result is a faint blue glowing flame that’s barely above room temperature but still has all the reactive properties of a plasma. The video shows all the details of construction and shows the torch in action.

Hats off to [Justin] for sticking with a difficult build and coming through it with an interesting and useful device. We’ve no doubt he’ll put it to good use in his DIY biohacking lab in the coming months.

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Nixie Power Supply Shows Ins And Out Of Offshore Manufacturing

[Tony] built a high-efficiency power supply for Nixie tube projects. But that’s not what this post is about, really.

As you read through [Tony]’s extremely detailed post on Hackaday.io, you’ll be reading through an object lesson in electronic design that covers the entire process, from the initial concept – a really nice, reliable 170 V power supply for Nixie tubes – right through to getting the board manufactured and setting up a Tindie store to sell them.

[Tony] saw the need for a solid, well-made high-voltage supply, so it delved into data sheets and found a design that would work – as he points out, no need to reinvent the wheel. He built and tested a prototype, made a few tweaks, then took PCBWay up on their offer to stuff 10 boards for a mere $88. There were some gotchas to work around, but he got enough units to test before deciding to ramp up to production.

Things got interesting there; ordering full reels of parts like flyback transformers turned out to be really important and not that easy, and the ongoing trade war between China and the US resulted in unexpected cost increases. But FedEx snafus notwithstanding, the process of getting a 200-unit production run built and shipped seemed remarkably easy. [Tony] even details his pricing and marketing strategy for the boards, which are available on Tindie and eBay.

We learned a ton from this project, not least being how hard it is for the little guy to make a buck in this space. And still, [Tony]’s excellent documentation makes the process seem approachable enough to be attractive, if only we had a decent idea for a widget.

Look Ma, No Glue! Electrostatic Adhesion As If By Magic

One of the projects at the recent Hacker Hotel hacker camp in the Netherlands appeared to have achieved the impossible. A vertical PCB surface was holding pieces of paper as though they were pinned to it as on a notice board, yet there was no adhesive or fixings in sight. Was Harry Potter among the attendees, ready with a crafty bit of magic at a waggle of a wizard’s wand, or was a clever hack at work?

Of course, it was the latter, as [Jan-Henrik Hemsing], had created an electrostatic adhesion plate because he was curious about the phenomenon. A PCB with extra insulation has an array of conductors on one side that carry a very high voltage. High enough for electrostatic attraction to secure a piece of paper to the PCB.

The voltage is generated from an AC source by a Cockroft-Walton multiplier on the back of the PCB, and the front is coated with Plasti-Dip for insulation. It seems that soldermask is not a reliable insulator at such high voltages.

Using the board, [Jan] was able to attach a piece of paper to it with a shearing force of 5mN at 3kV applied voltage, which may not sound like much but appeared to be just enough to carefully pick the contraption up by the piece of paper. The boards are designed for tessellation, so larger arrays could easily be assembled.

We’ve never had a project quite like this one, but we have brought you an electrostatic ping-pong ball accelerator.

Fun With A Hydrogen Thyratron

There’s something oddly menacing about some vacuum tubes. The glass, the glowing filaments, the strange metal grids and wires suspended within – all those lead to a mysterious sci-fi look and the feeling that strange things are happening in there.

Add in a little high voltage and a tube that makes its own hydrogen, and you’ve got something extra scary. This hydrogen thyratron ended up being just the thing for [Kerry Wong]’s high-voltage, high-current experiments. One would normally turn to the solid-state version of the thyratron, the silicon controlled rectifier (SCR), to switch such voltages. But the devices needed to handle the 30 amps [Kerry] had in mind were exorbitant, and when the IGBTs he used as a substitute proved a little too fragile he turned to the Russian surplus market for help. There he found a TGI1-50/5 hydrogen thyratron, a tube that has a small hydrogen gas generator inside – thyratrons are actually gas-filled rather than vacuum tubes and switch heavy currents through plasma conduction. [Kerry] set up a demo circuit with a small RC network to provide the fast switching pulse preferred by the thyratron, and proceeded to run 3500 volts through a couple of 1/4-W resistors with predictable results. The video below shows the fireworks.

Can’t get enough of the thyratron’s lovely purple glow? We’ve seen it before on this beautiful old switch-mode power supply. The versatile tubes also helped rebuild the first vocal encryption system.

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X-Rays And High Voltage Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the X-rays and high-voltage Hack Chat!

Fran Piernas likes to push the envelope a bit with projects that others might shy away from. A quick glance at his Hackaday.io profile reveals a few of the exciting projects he’s been working on recently, including a DIY X-ray machine and the high-voltage driver needed to run it. Not only that, he’s recently taken his home-brew X-ray rig to the next level – a computed tomography (CT) scanner. His YouTube channel also has some exciting stuff using potentially lethal voltages and ionizing radiation.

Please join us for this Hack Chat, in which we’ll cover:

  • How one safely works with high voltage and ionizing radiation;
  • Sourcing uncommon components like X-ray tubes;
  • How Fran decided to start playing at the edge of the danger zone; and
  • What sort of experiments he has in mind for the future.

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the X-rays and high-voltage Hack Chat and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, February 20, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, 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.