Experiment With Lumia, The Cheap and Easy Way

Light is a wonderful medium for art, and there’s all manner of ways to approach it. We’ve always been huge fans of all that blinks and glows, but there’s a whole wide world of other methods and techniques in the lighting arena. Lumia is one that does not always get a lot of mainstream attention, and so [Adam Raugh] has created this video, sharing both the history of the effect, and various ways to create it yourself. 

Lumia was once used to refer to a broad swathe of artistic lighting, but these days, more commonly refers to effects that create an aurora-like appearance, as one would see near the poles of our fine Earth. [Adam] first covers the history of the effect, as pioneered by Thomas Wilfred with the Clavilux in the early part of the 20th Century.

The video then covers the basics of creating lumia effects using DIY methods. The key is to combine slow rotation with an organically deformed refractive medium. [Adam]’s rig of choice is a basic laser projector, rotating at just 1/3 of a rotation per minute. This is then combined with a variety of homebrewed refractive media – torture tubes made from glass, acrylic sheets coated with muddled epoxy, and even a crumpled water bottle.

It’s an excellent primer on how to get started with lumia, and [Adam] covers a wide variety of tips and tricks as well as potential pitfalls to avoid.

We see plenty of great lighting projects around these parts – check out the Kinetic Chandelier. Video after the break.

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[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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Spring-Loaded Bed for K40 Laser Acts As an Auto-Focus

Laser engraving and cutting has something in common with focusing the sun’s rays with a magnifying glass: good focus is critical to results. If materials of varying thicknesses are used, focus needs to be re-set every time the material changes, and manual focusing quickly becomes a chore. [Scorch Works] has a clever solution to avoid constant re-focusing that doesn’t involve sensors or motors of any sort. The result is a self-adjusting bed that compensates for material height changes, ensuring that the top surface of the material is always a fixed distance from the laser’s head.

The way [Scorch Works] has done this is to make two spring-loaded clamps from angle aluminum and a few pieces of hardware. When a sheet of material is placed into the machine, the edges get tucked underneath the aluminum “lips” while being pushed upward from beneath. By fixing the height of the top layer of angle aluminum, any sheet stock always ends up the same distance from the laser head regardless of the material’s thickness.

[Scorch Works] shows the assembly in action in the video embedded below, along with a few different ways to accommodate different materials and special cases, so be sure to check it out.

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Kind of the Opposite of a Lightsaber

Lightsabers are an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. Did you ever consider that cutting people’s hands off with a laser sword means automatically cauterized wounds and that lack of blood results in a gentler rating from the Motion Picture Association? Movie guidelines aside, a cauterizing pen is found in some first aid kits, but at their core, they are a power source and a heating filament. Given the state of medical technology, this is due for an upgrade, and folks at Arizona State University are hitting all the marks with a combination of near-infrared lasers, gold particles, and protein matrix from silk.

Cauterizing relies on intense heat, or chemicals, to burn flesh but this process uses less power by aiming the near-IR laser at only the selected areas, and since near-IR can penetrate soft-tissue it goes deep without extra heating. The laser heats the gold, and that activates the silk proteins. Early results are positive but lots of testing remains and it still will not belong in the average first aid kit for a while, lasers and all, but surgery for beloved pets and tolerable humans could have recovery time reduced with this advance.

If this doesn’t sate your need for magical space knight weaponry, we have options aplenty.

Via IEEE Spectrum. Image: starwars.com

Scratch-Building A Supersized Laser Cutter

Now that 3D printers have more or less hit the mass market, hackers need a new “elite” tool to spend their time designing and fiddling with. Judging by the last couple of years, it looks like laser cutters will be taking over as the hacker tool du jour; as we’re starting to see more and more custom builds and modifications of entry-level commercial models. Usually these are limited to relatively small and low powered diode lasers, but as the following project shows, that’s not always the case.

This large format laser cutter designed and built by [Rob Chesney] is meticulously detailed on his blog, as well as in the in the video after the break. It’s made up of aluminium profile and a splattering of ABS 3D printed parts, and lives in an acrylic enclosure that’s uniquely isolated from the laser’s internal gantry. All told it cost about $2,000 USD to build, but considering the volume and features of this cutter that’s still a very fair price.

[Rob] carefully planned every aspect of this build, modeling the entire machine in CAD before actually purchasing any hardware. Interestingly enough his primary design constraint was the door to his shed: he wanted to build the largest possible laser cutter that could still be carried through it. That led to the final machine’s long and relatively shallow final dimensions. The design was also guided by a desire to minimize material waste, so when possible parts were designed to maximize how many could be cut from a one meter length of aluminum extrusion.

The laser features a movable Z axis that’s similar in design to what you might see in a Prusa-style 3D printer, with each corner of the gantry getting an 8 mm lead screw and smooth rod which are used in conjunction to lift and guide. All of the lead screws are connected to each other via pulleys and standard GT2 belt, but as of this version, [Rob] notes the Z axis must be manually operated. In the future he’ll be able to add in a stepper motor and automate it easily, but it wasn’t critical to get the machine running.

He used 3D printed parts for objects which had a relatively complex geometry, such as the laser tube holders and Z axis components, but more simplistic brackets were made out of cut acrylic. In some components, [Rob] used welding cement to bond two pieces of acrylic and thereby double the thickness. Large acrylic panels were also used for the laser’s outer enclosure, which was intentionally designed as a separate entity from the laser itself. He reasoned that this would make assembly easier and faster, as the enclosure would not have to be held to the same dimensional tolerances as it would have been if it was integrated into the machine.

[Rob] gives plenty of detail about all the finer points of water cooling, laser control electronics, aligning the mirrors, and really anything else you could possibly want to know about building your own serious laser cutter. If you’ve been considering building your own laser and have anything you’re curious or unsure about, there’s a good chance he addresses it in this build.

Short of having the fantastically good luck to find a laser cutter in the trash that you can refurbish, building your own machine may still be the best upgrade path if you outgrow your eBay K40.

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Flagging Down Aliens with World’s Biggest Laser Pointer

As you’re no doubt aware, humans are a rather noisy species. Not just audibly, like in the case of somebody talking loudly when you’re in a movie theater, but also electromagnetically. All of our wireless transmissions since Marconi made his first spark gap broadcast in 1895 have radiated out into space, and anyone who’s got a sensitive enough ear pointed into our little corner of the Milky Way should have no trouble hearing us. Even if these extraterrestrial eavesdroppers wouldn’t be able to understand the content of our transmissions, the sheer volume of them would be enough to indicate that whatever is making all that noise on the third rock orbiting Sol can’t be a natural phenomena. In other words, one of the best ways to find intelligent life in the galaxy may just be to sit around and wait for them to hear us.

Of course, there’s some pesky physics involved that makes it a bit more complicated. Signals radiate from the Earth at the speed of light, which is like a brisk walk in interstellar terms. Depending on where these hypothetical listeners are located, the delay between when we broadcast something and when they receive it can be immense. For example, any intelligent beings that might be listening in on us from the closest known star, Proxima Centauri, are only just now being utterly disappointed by the finale for “How I Met Your Mother“. Comparatively, “Dallas” fans from Zeta Reticuli are still on the edge of their seats waiting to find out who shot J.R.

But rather than relying on our normal broadcasts to do the talking for us, a recent paper in The Astrophysical Journal makes the case that we should go one better. Written by James R. Clark and Kerri Cahoy,  “Optical Detection of Lasers with Near-term Technology at Interstellar Distances” makes the case that we could use current or near-term laser technology to broadcast a highly directional beacon to potentially life-harboring star systems. What’s more, it even theorizes it would be possible to establish direct communications with an alien intelligence simply by modulating the beam.

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The Electric Imp Sniffs out California Wildfires

The wildfires in California are now officially the largest the state has ever seen. Over 50,000 people have been displaced from their homes, hundreds are missing, and the cost in property damage will surely be measured in the billions of dollars when all is said and done. With a disaster of this scale just the immediate effects are difficult to conceptualize, to say nothing of the collateral damage.

While not suggesting their situation is comparable to those who’ve lost their homes or families, Electric Imp CEO [Hugo Fiennes] has recently made a post on their blog calling attention to the air quality issues they’re seeing at their offices in Los Altos. To quantify the problem so that employees with respiratory issues would know the conditions before they came into work, they quickly hacked together a method for displaying particulate counts in their Slack server.

The key to the system is one of the laser particle sensors that we’re starting to see more of thanks to a fairly recent price drop on the technology. A small fan pulls air to be tested into the device, where a very sensitive optical sensor detects the light reflected by particles as they pass through the laser beam. The device reports not only how many particles are passing through it, but how large they are. The version of the sensor [Hugo] links to in his blog post includes an adapter board to make it easier to connect to your favorite microcontroller, but we’ve previously seen DIY builds which accomplish the same goal.

[Hugo] then goes on to provide firmware for the Electric Imp board that reads the current particulate counts from the sensor and creates a simple web page that can be viewed from anywhere in the world to see real-time conditions at the office. From there, this data can be plugged into a Slack webhook which will provide an instantaneous air quality reading anytime a user types “air” into the channel.

We’ve covered a number of air quality sensors over the years, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to become any less prevalent as time goes on. If anything, we’re seeing a trend towards networks of distributed pollution sensors so that citizens can collect their own data on their air they’re breathing.

[Thanks to DillonMCU for the tip.]