Into The Plasmaverse Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, September 23 at noon Pacific for the Into the Plasmaverse Hack Chat with Jay Bowles!

Most kids catch on to the fact that matter can exist in three states — solid, liquid, and gas — pretty early in life, usually after playing in the snow a few times. The ice and snowflakes, the wet socks, and the fog of water vapor in breath condensing back into water droplets all provide a quick and lasting lesson in not only the states of matter but the transitions between them. So it usually comes as some surprise later when they learn of another and perhaps more interesting state: plasma.

For the young scientist, plasma is not quite so easy to come by as the other phases of matter, coming about as it does from things they’re usually not allowed to muck with. High voltage discharges, strong electromagnetic fields, or simply a lot of heat can strip away electrons from a gas and make the ionized soup that we call plasma. But once they catch the bug, few things can compare to the dancing, frenetic energy of a good plasma discharge.

Jay Bowles picked up the plasma habit quite a while back and built his YouTube channel around it. Tesla coils, Van de Graaff generators, coils and capacitors of all types — whatever it takes to make a spark, Jay has probably made and used it to make the fourth state of matter. He’ll join us on the Hack Chat to talk about all the fun things to do with plasma, high-voltage discharge, and whatever else sparks his interest.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, September 23 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones baffle you as much as us, 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 You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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DIY Ionizer Clears The Air On A Budget

Have you ever had a good, deep breath of the air near a waterfall, or perhaps after a thunderstorm? That unmistakably fresh smell is due to ionized air, specifically negative ions, and many are the claims concerning their health benefits. A minor industry has sprung up to capitalize on the interest in ionized air, and while [Amaldev] wanted to clean up the Mumbai air coming into his home, he didn’t want to pay a lot for a commercial unit. So he built his own air ionizer for only about $10.

When [Amaldev] dropped this in the Hackaday tip line, he indicated that he’d been taking some heat for the design from Instagram followers. We imagine a fair number of the complaints stem from the cluster of sewing needles that bristle from one end of the PCB and are raised to 6,000 volts by a fifteen-stage Cockcroft-Walton multiplier. That’s sure to raise eyebrows, or possible the hair on one’s head if you happen to brush by the emitters. Or perhaps [Amaldev]’s critics are dubious about the benefits of ionized air; indeed, some commenters on the video below seem to think that the smoke in the closed jar was not precipitated by the ion stream as [Amaldev] claims, but rather somehow was settled by heat or some other trickery.

Neither of those bothers us as much as the direct 230-volt mains connection, though. We’d have preferred to see at least an isolation transformer in there, or perhaps a battery-powered flyback circuit to supply the input to that multiplier. Still, the lesson on cascade multipliers was welcome, and we found the smoke-clearing power of ionized air pretty amazing.

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Open-Source Satellite Propulsion Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, December 11 at noon Pacific for the Open-Source Satellite Propulsion Hack Chat with Michael Bretti!

When you look back on the development history of any technology, it’s clear that the successful products eventually reach an inflection point, the boundary between when it was a niche product and when it seems everyone has one. Take 3D-printers, for instance; for years you needed to build one if you wanted one, but now you can buy them in the grocery store.

It seems like we might be getting closer to the day when satellites reach a similar inflection point. What was once the province of nations with deep pockets and military muscles to flex has become far more approachable to those of more modest means. While launching satellites is still prohibitive and will probably remain so for years to come,  building them has come way, way down the curve lately, such that amateur radio operators have constellations of satellites at their disposal, small companies are looking seriously at what satellites can offer, and even STEM programs are starting to get students involved in satellite engineering.

Michael Bretti is on the leading edge of the trend toward making satellites more DIY friendly. He formed Applied Ion Systems to address one of the main problems nano-satellites face: propulsion. He is currently working on a range of open-source plasma thrusters for PocketQube satellites, a format that’s an eighth the size of the popular CubeSat format. His solid-fuel electric thrusters are intended to help these diminutive satellites keep station and stay in orbit longer than their propulsion-less cousins. And if all goes well, someday you’ll be able to buy them off-the-shelf.

Join us for the Hack Chat as Michael discusses the design of plasma thrusters, the details of his latest testing, and the challenges of creating something that needs to work in space.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, December 11 at 12:00 PM 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 You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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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Ion Powered Airplane: Not Coming To An Airport Near You

Not that we don’t love Star Trek, but the writers could never decide if ion propulsion was super high tech (Spock’s Brain) or something they used every day (The Menagerie). Regardless, ion propulsion is real and we have it today on more than one spacecraft. However, MIT recently demonstrated an ion-powered airplane. How exciting! An airplane with no moving parts that runs on electricity. Air travel will change forever, right? According to [Real Engineering], ion-propelled (full-sized) aircraft run into problems with the laws of physics. You can see the video explaining that, below.

To understand why, you need to know two things: how ion drive works and how the engines differ when using them in an atmosphere. Let’s start with a space-based ion engine, a topic we’ve covered before. Atoms are turned into ions which are accelerated electrically. So the ion engine is just using electricity to create thrust exhaust instead of burning rocket fuel.

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Neon Lamps Light Up Dim Ion Motor

Small pinwheel type ion motors fall into the category of a fun science experiment or something neat to do with high voltage, but Hackaday’s own [Manuel Rodriguez-Achach] added a neat twist that incorporates neon lamps.

Normally you’d take a straight wire and make 90 degree bends at either end but pointing in opposite directions, balance it on a pole, and apply a high voltage with a moderate amount of current. The wire starts spinning around at the top of the pole, provided the ends of the wire are sharp enough or the wire has a small enough diameter. If your power supply has ample current available then in the dark you’ll even see a purplish glow, called a corona, at the tips of the wire.

[Manuel] made just such an ion motor but his power supply didn’t have the necessary current to produce a strong enough corona to be visible to his camera. So he very cleverly soldered neon lamps on the two ends of the wires. One leg of each lamp goes to the wire and the other end of the lamp acts as the sharp point left out in the air for emitting the ions.

The voltage needed across each lamp in order to ignite it is that between the high voltage power supply’s output and the potential of the surrounding air. That air may be initially at ground potential but he also bends the other output terminal of the power supply such that its tip is also up in the air. This way it sprays ions of the opposite polarity into the surrounding air.

Either way, the neon lamps light up and the wire spins around on the pole. Now, even without a visible corona, his ion motor makes an awesome display. Check it out in the video below.

For more about these ion motors, sometimes called electric whirls, check our article about all sorts of interesting non-electromagnetic motors.

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Practical Plasma For Thin-Film Deposition

[Nixie] wants to sputter. We know, who doesn’t? But [Nixie] has a specific purpose for his sputtering: thin-film deposition, presumably in support of awesome science. But getting to that point requires a set of tools that aren’t exactly off-the-shelf items, so he’s building out a DIY sputtering rig on the cheap.

If you’re not familiar with sputtering, that’s understandable. In this context, sputtering is a process that transfers particles from one solid to another by bombarding the first solid with some sort of energetic particles, usually electrons or a plasma. When properly controlled, sputtering has applications from mass spectrometry to the semiconductor industry, where it’s used to either deposit thin films on silicon wafers or etch them away selectively.

No matter the application, sputtering needs a stable stream of plasma. [Nixie] has posted a series of articles on his blog walking us through his plasma experiments, from pulling a really strong vacuum to building a high-voltage power supply from a microwave oven transformer. It’s a project that needs a deep well of skills and tools, like glassworking, machining, and high-voltage electronics. Check out the plasma in the video below.

Will [Nixie] be using this for a DIY fab lab? Will it be used to make homebrew LEDs? The world waits to hear.

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