[Ben Krasnow] Builds a One-Component Interferometer

When we think of physics experiments, we tend to envision cavernous rooms filled with things like optical benches, huge coils in vacuum chambers, and rack after rack of amplifiers and data acquisition hardware. But it doesn’t have to be that way – you can actually perform laser interferometry with a single component and measure sub-micron displacements and more.

The astute viewer of [Ben Krasnow]’s video below will note that in order to use the one component, a laser diode, as an interferometer, he needed a whole bunch of support gear, like power supplies, a signal generator, and a really, really nice mixed-signal oscilloscope. But the principle of the experiment is the important bit, which uses a laser diode with a built-in monitoring photodiode. Brought out to a third lead, older laser diodes often used these photodiodes to control the light emitted by the laser junction. But they also respond to light reflected back into the laser diode, and thanks to constructive and destructive interference, can actually generate a signal that corresponds to very slight displacements of a reflector. [Ben] used it to measure the vibrations of a small speaker, the rotation of a motor shaft, and with a slight change in setup, to measure the range to a fixed target with sub-micron precision. It’s fascinating stuff, and the fact you can extract so much information from a single component is pretty cool.

We really like [Ben]’s style of presentation, and the interesting little nooks and crannies of physics that he finds a way to explore. He recently looked at how helium can kill a MEMS sensor, an equally fascinating topic.

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Robotic Laser Keeps Cat Entertained While You Hack

Whether it’s our own cat or a neighbor’s, many of us have experienced the friendly feline keeping us company while we work, often contributing on the keyboard, sticking its head where our hands are for a closer look, or sitting on needed parts. So how to keep the crafty kitty busy elsewhere? This roboticized laser on a pan-tilt mechanism from the [circuit.io team] should do the trick.

The laser is a 650 nm laser diode mounted on a 3D printed pan-tilt system which they found on Thingiverse and modified for attaching the diode’s housing. It’s all pretty lightweight so two 9G Micro Servos do the grunt work just fine. The brain is an Arduino UNO running an open-source VarSpeedServo library for smooth movements. Also included are an HC-05 Bluetooth receiver and an Android app for controlling the laser from your phone. Set it to Autoplay or take a break and use the buttons to direct the laser yourself. See the video below for build instructions and of course their cat, [Pepper], looking like a Flamenco dancer chasing the light.

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Metal 3D Printing: Insta-Layers

Selective Metal Sintering is cool but slow. Fear not, a technology that was initially developed to smooth and pattern laser beams is here to save the day, according to a new paper by Lawrence Livermore researchers.

In a paper titled “Diode-based additive manufacturing of metals using an optically-addressable light valve,” the researchers lay out a procedure for using an array of high-powered laser diodes among other things to print a whole layer of metal from powdered metal at one time. No more forward and backward, left and right. Just one bright flash and you’re done. Naturally, the technology is still in its infancy, but huge 3D printed metallic parts are something we’ve always hoped for.

According to [Matthews], the first author of the paper, the mojo of the process comes from a customized laser modulator: the Optically Addressable Light Valve which functions similarly to liquid crystal-based projectors but can handle the high energies associated with powerful lasers. There’s more information straight from the paper’s authors in this phys.org interview.

While it’s true that now is the time for direct metal 3D printing, it appears that for the time being the average hacker is stuck with alternative methods for printing metal. While it’s not the same, pewter casting with PLA might suffice.

Thanks to [Kevin] for sending this in!

Sending Music Long Distance Using A Laser

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen DIYers sending music over a laser beam but the brothers [Armand] and [Victor] are certainly in contention for sending the music the longest distance, 452 meter/1480 feet from their building, over the tops of a few houses, through a treetop and into a friend’s apartment. The received sound quality is pretty amazing too.

In case you’ve never encountered this before, the light of the laser is modulated with a signal directly from the audio source, making it an analog transmission. The laser is a 250mW diode laser bought from eBay. It’s powered through a 5 volt 7805 voltage regulator fed by a 12V battery. The signal from the sound source enters the circuit through a step-up transformer, isolating it so that no DC from the source enters. The laser’s side of the transformer feeds the base of a transistor. They included a switch so that the current from the regulator can either go through the collector and emitter of the transistor that’s controlled by the sound source, giving a strong modulation, or the current can go directly to the laser while modulation is provided through just the transistor’s base and emitter. The schematic for the circuit is given at the end of their video, which you can see after the break.

They receive the beam in their friend’s apartment using solar cells, which then feed a fairly big amplifier and speakers. From the video you can hear the surprisingly high quality sounds that results. So check it out. It also includes a little Benny Hill humor.

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RC Drag Racing Christmas Tree and Speed Trap

In the drag racing world, a Christmas tree is the post at the start line that sequentially lights up a set of yellow lights followed shortly after by a green light to tell the drivers to go, the lights obviously giving it its seasonal name. Included at the base of the tree are lasers to detect the presence of the cars.

[Mike] not only made his own Christmas tree for his RC cars, but he even made an end-of-track circuit with LED displays telling the cars how long they took. Both start and finish hardware are controlled by Pololu Wixel boards which has TI CC2511F32 microcontrollers with built-in 2.4 GHz radios for wireless communications.

In addition to the LEDs, the Christmas tree has a laser beam using a 650nm red laser diode for each car at the start line that’s aimed at a TEPT5600 phototransistor. If a car crosses its beam before the green light then a red light signals the car’s disqualification.

The end-of-track circuit has 7-segment displays for each car’s time. [Mike] designed the system so that the Christmas tree’s microcontroller tells the end-of-track circuit’s microcontroller when to reset the times, start the times, and clear the times should there be a disqualification. The finish line controller has lasers and phototransistors just like the starting line to stop the timers.

Oh, and did we mention that he also included 1980’s car racing game sounds? To see and hear it all in action check out the video after the break. If the cars seem a little drunk it’s because pushing left or right on the controller turns the wheel’s fully left or right.

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Etching PCBs With A 3D Printer

With the coming of very cheap blue laser diodes, PCB fabrication has become increasingly interesting. Instead of making a photoresist, placing it over a piece of pre-sensitized copper clad board, and putting the whole assemblage under a blacklight, it’s possible to put a photomask on a board with a tiny bit of very blue light. All you need is a CNC machine. A 3D printer can be a very precise CNC machine, and when you combine these two ideas together, you can make printed circuit boards with an Ultimaker.

[Geggo] had the idea of attaching a blue laser diode to his Ultimaker to burn a few traces into presensitized copper board. With a 3D printed adapter, he was able to mount the diode and associated electronics right on the extruder body. With a small ring to tighten up the aperture, [geggo] was able to put a 50 micrometer wide dot of light on a piece of copper. The laser is powered directly from the PWM fan output on the printer controller board, allowing this entire mish-mash of cheap electronics to be controlled via G-code.

A few experiments were necessary to determine the correct speeds and power settings, with the best results being 1000 mm per minute at 40 mA. The finished board looks fantastic, and a few minutes after [geggo] was done etching a board, he started using his 3D printer as a printer. It’s a result that is so good, so easy to accomplish, and requires so little effort it makes us wonder why we don’t see more of this.

A DIY Fourier Transform Spectrometer

Typical spectrometers use prisms or diffraction gratings to spread light over a viewing window or digital sensor as a function of frequency. While both prisms and gratings work very well, there are a couple of downsides to each. Diffraction gratings produce good results for a wide range of wavelengths, but a very small diffraction grating is needed to get high-resolution data. Smaller gratings let much less light through, which limits the size of the grating. Prisms have their own set of issues, such as a limited wavelength range. To get around these issues, [iliasam] built a Fourier transform spectrometer (translated), which operates on the principle of interference to capture high-resolution spectral data.

[iliasam]’s design is built with an assortment of parts including a camera lens, several mirrors, a micrometer, laser diode, and a bunch of mechanical odds and ends. The core of the design is a Michelson interferometer which splits and recombines the beam, forming an interference pattern. One mirror of the interferometer is movable, while the other is fixed. [iliasam]’s design uses a reference laser and photodiode as a baseline for his measurement, which also allows him to measure the position of the moving mirror. He has a second photodiode which measures the interference pattern of the actual sample that’s being tested.

Despite its name, the Fourier transform spectrometer doesn’t directly put out a FFT. Instead, the signal from both the reference and measurement photodiodes is passed into the sound card of a computer. [iliasam] wrote some software that processes the sampled data and, after quite a bit of math, spits out the spectrum. The software isn’t as simple as you might think – it has to measure the reference signal and calculate the velocity of the mirror’s oscillations, count the number of oscillations, frequency-correct the signal, and much more. After doing all this, his software calculates an interferogram, performs an inverse Fourier transform, and the spectrum is finally revealed. Check out [iliasam]’s writeup for all the theory and details behind his design.