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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[Ben Krasnow] Builds A Mass Spectrometer

One of the features that made Scientific American magazine great was a column called “The Amateur Scientist.” Every month, readers were treated to experiments that could be done at home, or some scientific apparatus that could be built on the cheap. Luckily, [Ben Krasnow]’s fans remember the series and urged him to tackle a build from it: a DIY mass spectrometer. (Video, embedded below the break.)

[Ben] just released the video below showing early experiments with a copper tube contraption that was five months in the making; it turns out that analytical particle physics isn’t as easy as it sounds. The idea behind mas spectrometry is to ionize a sample, accelerate the ions as they pass through a magnetic field, and measure the deflection of the particles as a function of their mass-to-charge ratio. But as [Ben] discovered, the details of turning a simple principle into a working instrument are extremely non-trivial.

His rig uses filaments extracted from carefully crushed incandescent lamps to ionize samples of potassium iodide chloride; applied to the filament and dried, the salt solution is ionized when the filament is heated. The stream of ions is accelerated by a high-voltage field and streamed through a narrow slit formed by two razor blades. A detector sits orthogonal to the emitter across a powerful magnetic field, with a high-gain trans-impedance amplifier connected. With old analog meters and big variacs, the whole thing has a great mad scientist vibe to it that reminds us a bit of his one-component interferometer setup.

[Ben]’s data from the potassium sample agreed with expected results, and the instrument is almost sensitive enough to discern the difference between two different isotopes of potassium. He promises upgrades to the mass spec in the future, including perhaps laser ionization of the samples. We’re looking forward to that.

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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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Fail Of The Week: Tracking Meteors With Weather Radio

It’s not hard to detect meteors: go outside on a clear night in a dark place and you’re bound to see one eventually. But visible light detection is limiting, and knowing that meteors leave a trail of ions means radio detection is possible. That’s what’s behind this attempt to map meteor trails using broadcast signals, which so far hasn’t yielded great results.

Passing jet’s Doppler signature

The fact that meteor trails reflect radio signals is well-known; hams use “meteor bounce” to make long-distance contacts all the time. And using commercial FM broadcast signals to map meteor activity isn’t new, either — we’ve covered the “forward scattering” technique before. The technique requires tuning into a frequency used by a distant station but not a local one and waiting for a passing meteor to bounce the distant signal back to your SDR dongle. Capturing the waterfall display for later analysis should show characteristic patterns and give you an idea of where and when the meteor passed.

[Dave Venne] is an amateur astronomer who turns his eyes and ears to the heavens just to see what he can find. [Dave]’s problem is that the commercial FM band in the Minneapolis area that he calls home is crowded, to say the least. He hit upon the idea of using the National Weather Service weather radio broadcasts at around 160 MHz as a substitute. Sadly, all he managed to capture were passing airplanes with their characteristic Doppler shift; pretty cool in its own right, but not the desired result.

The comments in the post on [Dave]’s attempt had a few ideas on where this went wrong and how to improve it, including the intriguing idea of using 60-meter ham band propagation beacons. Now it’s Hackaday’s turn: any ideas on how to fix [Dave]’s problem? Sound off in the comments below.

Put Plasma To Work With This Basic Toolkit

Fair warning: [Justin Atkin]’s video on how to make plasma, fusors, and magnetrons is a bit long. But it’s worth watching because he’s laying a foundation for a series of experiments with plasma, which looks like it will be a lot of fun.

After a nice primer on the physics of plasma, [Justin] goes into some detail about the basic tools of the trade: high voltage and high vacuum. A couple of scrap microwave oven transformers, a bridge rectifier, and a capacitor provide the 2000 volts DC output needed. It’s a workable setup, but we’ll take issue with the incredibly dangerous “scariac” autotransformer, popularized by [The King of Random]. It seems foolish to risk a painful death mixing water and line current when a 20-amp variac can be had for $100.

A decent vacuum pump will be needed too, of course; perhaps the money you can save by building your own Sprengel vacuum pump can be put toward the electrical budget. Vacuum chambers are cheap too — Mason jars with ground rims and holes drilled for accessories like spark plugs. Magnets mounted below one chamber formed a rudimentary magnetron, thankfully without the resonating cavities needed for producing microwaves. Another experiment attempted vapor deposition of titanium nitride.

It’s all pretty cool stuff, and we’re looking forward to more details and results. While we wait, feel free to check out the tons of plasma projects we’ve featured, from tiny plasma speakers to giant plasma tubes.

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