Bending Light To Fit Technology

Solar power is an excellent way of generating electricity, whether that’s for an off-grid home or for the power grid. With no moving parts maintenance is relatively low, and the downsides of burning fuel are eliminated as well. But as much as it’s revolutionized power generation over the last few decades, there’s still some performance gains to be made when it comes to the solar cells themselves. A team at Stanford recently made strides in improving cell efficiency by bending the properties of sunlight itself.

In order to generate electricity directly from sunlight, a photon with a specific amount of energy needs to strike the semiconductor material. Any photons with higher energy will waste some of that energy as heat, and any with lower energy won’t generate electricity. Previous methods to solve this problem involve using something similar to a prism to separate the light out into colors (or energies) that correlate to specific types of cells calibrated specifically for those colors. This method does the opposite: it changes the light itself to an color that fits the semiconductor material. In short, a specialized material converts the energy from two lower-energy photons into a single higher-energy photon, which then strikes the solar panel to create energy.

By adding these color-changing materials as a layer to a photovoltaic solar panel, the panel can generate more energy with a given amount of light than a traditional panel. The major hurdle, as with any research, is whether or not this will be viable when produced at scale, and this shows promise in that regard as well. There are other applications for these materials beyond photovoltaics as well, and the researchers provide an excellent demonstration in 3D printing. By adding these color-change materials to resin, red lasers can be used instead of blue or ultraviolet lasers to cure resin in extremely specific locations, leading to stronger and more accurate prints.

Do-Everything LED Indicator Light Runs From 4V To 60V

If you’re working with 3.3V or 5V circuits, it’s easy for you to throw on a power or status LED here or there. [Tom Gralewicz] has found himself in a pickle, though, often working on projects with voltages like 36V or 48V. Suddenly, it’s no longer practical to throw an LED and a resistor on a line to verify if it’s powered or not. Craving this simplicity, [Tom] invented the Cheap Universal LED Driver, or CULD, to do the job instead.

The CULD is designed as a simple LED indicator that will light up anywhere from 5V to 50V. It’s intended to be set-and-forget, requiring no fussing with different resistor values and no worries for the end user that excessive current draw will result.

The key part ended up being the LV2862XLVDDCR – a cheap switching regulator. It can output 1 mA to 600 mA to drive one or several LEDs, and it can do so anywhere from a 4V to 60V input. Assemble this on a coin-sized PCB with some LEDs, and you’ve got your nifty do-everything indicator light. With a bridge rectifier onboard, it’ll even work on AC circuits, too.

[Tom] has built a handful himself, but he open-sourced the design in the hopes it will go further. By his calculations, it would be possible to build these in quantities of 1000 for a BOM cost of less than $0.50 each, not counting assembly or the PCB itself. We’d love to see them become a standard part of hacker toolkits, too. If you’ve got a pick-and-place plant that’s looking for work this week, maybe get them on to something like this and see what you can do! If it turns out to be a goer, maybe drop us a note on the tipsline, yeah?

New Resin Printing Method Creates Objects In Seconds

For anyone looking to buy a 3D printer at home, the first major decision that needs to be made is whether to get a resin printer or a filament printer. Resin has the benefits of finer detail, but filament printers are typically able to produce stronger prints. Within those two main camps are various different types and sizes to choose from, but thanks to some researchers at Switzerland’s École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) there’s a new type of resin printer on the horizon that can produce prints nearly instantaneously.

The method works similarly to existing resin printers by shining a specific light pattern on the resin in order to harden it. The main difference is that the resin is initially placed in a cylinder and spun at a high speed, and the light is shined on the resin at different angles with very precise intensities and timings in order to harden the resin in specific areas. This high-speed method allows the printer to produce prints in record-breaking time. The only current downside, besides the high price for the prototype printer, is that it’s currently limited to small prints.

With the ability to scale in the future and the trend of most new technologies to come down in price after they have been on the market for some amount of time, it would be groundbreaking to be able to produce prints with this type of speed if printers like these can be scalable. Especially if they end up matching the size and scale of homemade printers like this resin printer.

Thanks to [suicidal.banana] for the tip!

All-In-One Automated Plant Care

Caring for a few plants, or even an entire farm, can be quite a rewarding experience. Watching something grow under and then (optionally) produce food is a great hobby or career, but it can end up being complicated. Thanks to modern technology we can get a considerable amount of help growing plants, even if it’s just one plant in a single pot.

Plant Bot from [YJ] takes what would normally be a wide array of sensors and controllers and combines them all into a single device. To start, there is a moisture sensor integrated into the housing so that when the entire device is placed in soil it’s instantly ready to gather moisture data. Plant Bot also has the capability to control LED lighting if the plant is indoors.  It can control the water supply to the plant, and it can also communicate information over WiFi or Bluetooth.

The entire build is based around an ESP32 which is integrated into the PCB along with all of the other sensors and components needed to monitor a single plant. Plant Bot is an excellent all-in-one solution for caring for a plant automatically. If you need to take care of more than one at a time take a look at this fully automated hydroponic mini-farm.

Stresses Revealed With A Polariscope

There are a lot of ways that stresses can show up, at least when discussing materials science. Cracks in concrete are a common enough example, but any catastrophic failure in a material is often attributable to some stress that couldn’t be withstood. If you’re interested in viewing those stresses before they result in damage to the underlying material, take a look at this DIY polariscope which can view internal stresses in glass and other clear objects.

The polariscope takes its name from the fact that it uses polarized light to view the internal structure of a transparent object such as glass. When the polarized light passes through glass in a certain way, the stresses show up as lighter areas thanks to the stressed glass bending the light back into view. This one is constructed with a polarizing filter placed in front of an LCD screen set to display a completely white image. When glass is placed between the screen and the filter no light is seen through the polariscope unless there are stresses in the glass. Even placing a force on an otherwise un-stressed glass tube can show this effect, and [Advanced Tinkering], this project’s creator, has several other creations which show this effect in striking detail.

The effect can also be observed as colored areas in other plastic materials as well. It’s an interesting tool which can help anyone who frequently works with glass, but it’s also interesting on its own to see clues left behind from the manufacturing process of various household items. We’ve seen some other investigative methods for determining how other household items are mass produced as well, like this project which breaks down the injection molding process.

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How Did We Get To The Speed Of Light?

Every high school physics student knows c, or the speed of light, it’s 3 x 10^8 metres per second. More advanced or more curious students will know that this is an approximation, and the figure of 299,792,458 metres per second that forms the officially accepted figure comes from a resonance of the caesium atom from which is derived a value for the second.

Galileo Galilei, whose presence in this story should come as no surprise. Justus Sustermans, Public domain.

But for those who are really curious about measuring the speed of light the question remains: Just how did we arrive at that figure and how long have we been measuring it? The answer contains some surprises, and some exceptionally clever scientific thought and experimentation over the centuries.

The nature of light and whether it had a speed at all had been puzzling philosophers and scientists since antiquity, but the first experiments performed in an attempt to measure it were you will not be surprised to hear, performed by Galileo sometime in the early 17th century. His experiment involved his observation of assistants uncovering lanterns at known distances away, and his observations  failed to arrive at a figure.

Later that century in 1676 the first numerical estimate of the speed of light was made by the Danish astronomer Ole Rømer, who observed an apparent variation in the period of one of Jupiter’s moons depending upon whether the Earth was approaching it or moving away from it. From this he was able to estimate the time taken for light to cross the Earth’s orbit, and from there the mathematician Christiaan Huygens was able to produce a figure of 220,000,000 metres per second.

Spinning Cogs And Mirrors: Time Of Flight

The mile-long evacuated tube used in Michelson's time-of-flight experiment. H.
The mile-long evacuated tube used in Michelson’s time-of-flight experiment. H. H. Dunn, Public domain.

The experiments with which we will perhaps be the most familiar are the so-called time of flight measurements, which take Galileo’s idea of observing the delay as light travels over a distance, and bring to it ever higher precision. This was first performed in the middle of the 19th century by the French physicist Hippolyte Fizeau, who reflected a beam of light from a mirror over several kilometres, and used a toothed wheel to chop it into pulses. The pulses could be increased in frequency by moving the wheel faster until the time taken for the light to travel the distance from wheel to mirror and back again matched the separation between teeth and the returning pulse could be observed. His calculation of 313,300,000 metres per second was successively improved upon through the work of succession of others including Léon Foucault, culminating in the series of experiments by the American physicist Albert A. Michelson in the 1920s. Michelson’s final figure stood at 299,774,000 metres per second, measured through a multi-path traversal of a mile-long evacuated tube in the California desert. In the second half of the century the techniques shifted to laser interferometry, and in the quest to define the SI units in terms of constants, eventually to the definition mentioned in the first paragraph.

The most fascinating part of the story probably encapsulates the essence of scientific discovery, namely that while to arrive at something takes the work of many scientists building on the work of each other, it can then often be rendered into a form that can be understood by a student who hasn’t had to pass through all that effort. We could replicate Fizeau and Michelson’s experiments with a pulse generator, laser diode, and oscilloscope, which while of little scientific value nearly a century after Michelson’s evacuated tube, is still immensely cool. Has anyone out there given it a try?

Header image: Tommology, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Bubble Lights Made From Scratch

Bubble lights are mesmerizing things to watch, up there with lava lamps as one of the nicer aesthetic creations of the mid-20th century. [Tech Ingredients] decided to head into the lab to whip up some of their own design, taking things up a notch beyond what you’d typically find in a store.

Bubble lights have a liquid inside glass that is held under a vacuum. This reduces the boiling point of the fluid, allowing a small heat input to easily create bubbles that float to the top of the chamber inside. The fluid used inside is also chosen for its low boiling point, with [Tech Ingredients] choosing dichloromethane for safety when using flames to work the glass.

The video shows off the basic glass working techniques required to make the glass bubble tubes, as well as how to build the bases of the bubble lamps that light the fluid up and provide the heat to create bubbles. The use of different materials to create nucleation points for the boiling fluid is also discussed, giving different visual effects in the final result. It’s a great primer on getting started building these beautiful decorations yourself.

Bubbles are pretty things, and with different techniques, we’ve even seen them used to make displays. Video after the break.

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