Ask Hackaday: Get the Lead Out or Not?

For most of the history of industrial electronics, solder has been pretty boring. Mix some lead with a little tin, figure out how to wrap it around a thread of rosin, and that’s pretty much it. Sure, flux formulations changed a bit, the ratio of lead to tin was tweaked for certain applications, and sometimes manufacturers would add something exotic like a little silver. But solder was pretty mundane stuff.

Source: RoHS Guide

Then in 2003, the dull gray world of solder got turned on its head when the European Union adopted a directive called Restriction of Hazardous Substances, or RoHS. We’ve all seen the little RoHS logos on electronics gear, and while the directive covers ten substances including mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium, it has been most commonly associated with lead solder. RoHS, intended in part to reduce the toxicity of an electronic waste stream that amounts to something like 50 million tons a year worldwide, marked the end of the 60:40 alloy’s reign as the king of electrical connections, at least for any products intended for the European market, when it went into effect in 2006.

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Soldering Like It’s 205 BC

Did you ever stop to think how unlikely the discovery of soldering is? It’s hard to imagine what sequence of events led to it; after all, metals heated to just the right temperature while applying an alloy of lead and tin in the right proportions in the presence of a proper fluxing agent doesn’t seem like something that would happen by accident.

Luckily, [Chris] at Clickspring is currently in the business of recreating the tools and technologies that would have been used in ancient times, and he’s made a wonderful video on precision soft soldering the old-fashioned way. The video below is part of a side series he’s been working on while he builds a replica of the Antikythera mechanism, that curious analog astronomical computer of antiquity. Many parts in the mechanism were soldered, and [Chris] explores plausible methods using tools and materials known to have been available at the time the mechanism was constructed (reported by different historians as any time between 205 BC and 70 BC or so). His irons are forged copper blocks, his heat source is a charcoal fire, and his solder is a 60:40 mix of lead and tin, just as we use today. He vividly demonstrates how important both surface prep and flux are, and shows both active and passive fluxes. He settled on rosin for the final joints, which turned out silky smooth and perfect; we suspect it took quite a bit of practice to get the technique down, but as always, [Chris] makes it look easy.

If you’d like to dig a bit deeper into modern techniques, we’ve covered the physics of solder and fluxes in some depth. And if you need more of those sweet, sweet Clickspring videos, we’ve got you covered there as well.

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Getting the Lead Out of Lithium Battery Recycling

When that fateful morning comes that your car no longer roars to life with a quick twist of the key, but rather groans its displeasure at the sad state of your ride’s electrical system, your course is clear: you need a new battery. Whether you do it yourself or – perish the thought – farm out the job to someone else, the end result is the same. You get a spanking new lead-acid battery, and the old one is whisked away to be ground up and turned into a new battery in a nearly perfect closed loop system.

Contrast this to what happens to the battery in your laptop when it finally gives up the ghost. Some of us will pop the pack open, find the likely one bad cell, and either fix the pack or repurpose the good cells. But most dead lithium-based battery packs are dropped in the regular trash, or placed in blue recycling bins with the best of intentions but generally end up in the landfill anyway.

Why the difference between lead and lithium batteries? What about these two seemingly similar technologies dictates why one battery can have 98% of its material recycled, while the other is cheaper to just toss? And what are the implications down the road, when battery packs from electric vehicles start to enter the waste stream in bulk?

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Mechanisms: The Screw Thread

They hold together everything from the most delicate watch to the largest bridge. The world is literally kept from coming apart by screws and bolts, and yet we don’t often give a thought to these mechanisms. Part of that is probably because we’ve gotten so good at making them that they’re seen as cheap commodities, but the physics and engineering behind the screw thread is interesting stuff.

We all likely remember an early science lesson wherein the basic building blocks of all mechanisms laid out. The simple machines are mechanisms that use an applied force to do work, such as the inclined plane, the lever, and the pulley. For instance, an inclined plane, in the form of a splitting wedge, directs the force of blows against its flat face into a chunk of wood, forcing the wood apart.

Screw threads are another simple machine, and can be thought of as a long, gently sloped inclined plane wrapped around a cylinder. Cut a long right triangle out of paper, wrap it around a pencil starting at the big end, and the hypotenuse forms a helical ramp that looks just like a thread. Of course, for a screw thread to do any work, it has to project out more than the thickness of a piece of paper, and the shape of the projection determines the mechanical properties of the screw.

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What the Flux: How Does Solder Work Anyway?

I’ve been soldering for a long time, and I take pride in my abilities. I won’t say that I’m the best solder-slinger around, but I’m pretty good at this essential shop skill — at least for through-hole and “traditional” soldering; I haven’t had much practice at SMD stuff yet. I’m confident that I could make a good, strong, stable joint that’s both electrically and mechanically sound in just about any kind of wire or conductor.

But like some many of us, I learned soldering as a practical skill; put solder and iron together, observe results, repeat the stuff that works and avoid the stuff that doesn’t. Seems like adding a little inside information might help me improve my skills, so I set about learning what’s going on mechanically and chemically inside a solder joint.

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An Open Source Lead Tester

If you’ve ever needed an example of colossal failure of government actors, you need only to look at Flint, Michigan’s water crisis. After the city of Flint changed water supplies from Detroit to the Flint river, city officials failed to add the correct corrosion inhibitors. This meant that lead dissolved into the water, thousands of children were exposed to lead in drinking water, a government coverup ensued, [Erin Brockovich] showed up, the foreman of the Flint water plant was found dead, and the City Hall office containing the water records was broken into.

Perhaps inspired by Flint, [Matthew] is working on an Open Source Lead Tester for his entry into the 2016 Hackaday Prize.

[Matthew]’s lead tester doesn’t test the water directly. Instead, it uses a photodiode and RGB LED to look at the color of a lead test strip. These results are recorded, and with a bit of a software backend, an entire city can be mapped for lead contamination in a few days with just a few of these devices.

One problem [Matthew] has run into is the fact the Pi does not have analog to digital conversion, making reading a photodiode a little harder than just plugging a single part into a pin header and watching an analog value rise and fall. That really shouldn’t be a problem – ADCs are cheap, especially if you only need a single channel of analog input with low resolution. [Matthew] is also looking into using the Pi webcam for measuring the lead test strip. There are a lot of decisions to make, but any functional device that comes out of this project will be very useful in normal, functioning governments. And hopefully in Flint, Michigan too.

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Retrotechtacular: Submarine Cable Splicing is Serious Business

Really. As this wonderfully narrated talkie picture from 1939 will attest, keeping even one drop of water from penetrating undersea cables is of the utmost importance.

How do they do it? Many, many layers of protection, including several of jute wrapping. The video centers on splicing a new cable to an existing one in the San Francisco Bay to bring the wonder of telephony to a man-made island created for the Golden Gate International Expo.

The narrator makes these men out to be heroes, and when you see how much lead they came into contact with, you’ll understand what he means. Each of the 1,056 individually insulated wires must be spliced by hand. After that comes a boiling out process in which petrolatum is poured over the splice to remove all moisture. Then, a lead sleeve is pulled over the connections. Molten lead is poured over the sleeve and smoothed out by hand.

At this point, the splice is tested. The sleeve is punctured and nitrogen gas is pumped in at 20psi.  Then comes the most important step: the entire sleeve is painted with soap suds.  Any gas that escapes will make telltale bubbles.

Once they are satisfied with the integrity of the sheath, they wrap the whole thing in what appears to be lead cables and pound them into submission. Surely that would be enough, don’t you think?  Nope.  They weld the cables all around and then apply two coats of tar-treated jute wrapping, which retards saltwater corrosion considerably.

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