Plasma Etching In A Microwave

Deep inside your smartphone are a handful of interesting miniature electromechanical devices. The accelerometer is a MEMS device, and was produced with some of the most impressive industrial processes on the planet. Sometimes, these nanoscale devices are produced with plasma etching, which sounds about as cool as it actually is. Once the domain of impossibly expensive industrial processes, you can now plasma etch materials in a microwave.

Of course, making plasma in this way is nothing new. If you cut a grape in half and plop it in a microwave, some really cool stuff happens. This is just the 6th grade science class demonstration of what a plasma is, and really it’s only a few dissociated water, oxygen, and nitrogen molecules poofing in a microwave. To do something useful with this plasma, you need a slightly more controlled environment.

The researchers behind this paper used a small flask with an evacuated atmosphere (about 300 mTorr) placed into a microwave for a few seconds. The experiments consisted of reducing graphene oxide to graphene, with the successful production of small squares of graphene bonded to PET film. Other experiments changed the optical properties of a zinc oxide film deposited onto a glass microscope slide and changing a PDMS film from being hydroscopic to hydrophobic.

While the results speak for themselves — you can use a microwave to generate plasma, and that plasma can change the properties of any exposed material — this is far from a real industrial process. That said, it’s good enough for an experiment and another neat technique in the home lab’s bag of tricks.

A Radar Module Teardown And Measuring Fan Speed The Hard Way

If you have even the slightest interest in microwave electronics and radar, you’re in for a treat. The Signal Path is back with another video, and this one covers the internals of a simple 24-GHz radar module along with some experiments that we found fascinating.

The radar module that [Shahriar] works with in the video below is a CDM324 that can be picked up for a couple of bucks from the usual sources. As such it contains a lot of lessons in value engineering and designing to a price point, and the teardown reveals that it contains but a single active device. [Shahriar] walks us through the layout of the circuit, pointing out such fascinating bits as capacitors with no dielectric, butterfly stubs acting as bias tees, and a rat-race coupler that’s used as a mixer. The flip side of the PCB has two arrays of beam-forming patch antennas, one for transmit and one for receive. After a few simple tests to show that the center frequency of the module is highly variable, he does a neat test using gimbals made of servos to sweep the signal across azimuth and elevation while pointing at a receiving horn antenna. This shows the asymmetrical nature of the beam-forming array. He finishes up by measuring the speed of a computer fan using the module, which has some interesting possibilities in data security as well as a few practical applications.

Even though [Shahriar]’s video tend to the longish side, he makes every second count by packing in a lot of material. He also makes complex topics very approachable, like what’s inside a million-dollar oscilloscope or diagnosing a wonky 14-GHz spectrum analyzer.

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Digital Attenuator Goes from Manual to Arduino Control

[Kerry Wong] comes across the coolest hardware, and always manages to do something interesting with it. His widget du jour is an old demo board for a digital RF attenuator chip, which can pad a signal in discrete steps according to the settings of some DIP switches. [Kerry]’s goal: forget the finger switch-flipping and bring the attenuator under Arduino control.

As usual with his videos, [Kerry] gives us a great rundown on the theory behind the hardware he’s working with. The chip in question is an interesting beast, an HMC624LP4E from Hittite, a company that was rolled into Analog Devices in 2014. The now-obsolete device is a monolithic microwave integrated circuit (MMIC) built on a gallium arsenide substrate rather than silicon, and attenuates DC to 6-GHz signals in 64 steps down to -31.5 dBm. After a functional check of the board using the DIP switches, he whipped up a quick Arduino project to control the chip with its built-in serial interface. It’s just a prototype for now, but spinning the encoder is a lot handier than flipping switches, and once this is boxed up it’ll make a great addition to [Kerry]’s RF bench.

If this video puts you in an RF state of mind, check out some of [Kerry]’s other videos, like this one about temperature-compensated crystal oscillators, or the mysteries of microwave electronics.

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A Microwave Erector Set

RF design isn’t always easy, especially at higher frequencies. Despite improvements in simulation tools, there’s still no substitute for prototyping and trying out different things. That wasn’t so bad when that meant nailing some nails in a piece of wood and wiring up discrete components. But at today’s microwave frequencies and with today’s IC packaging that simply doesn’t work. Solving this problem is what drives a company called X-Microwave. They have a standard grid pattern PCB for a wide range of RF circuits and accessories to tie them all together. Probably the best way to get a feel for the system is to watch the simple video below. There’s also a free simulator tool worth taking note of that you’ll see in a bit.

Before you get too excited, we’ll warn you that while this stuff is cheap if you need it, it isn’t an impulse buy. The baseboards and probes (the connectors) run from $150 to $300. You can get kits, too, but a bare-bones two-port system is going to start at about $550, which is about $100 off the component parts and includes some extras. Then you need less expensive parts to make the boxes around things if you need them. Oh. Then you also need the PCBs which are not cheap, either. Their prices vary widely as you’d expect, but — for example — we saw amplifiers as low as $80 and as high as nearly $1000. So a complete system could get pretty pricey.

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Harvesting Power From Microwave Popcorn

One of the challenges in this year’s Hackaday Prize is Power Harvesting where we’re asking everybody to create something that harvests energy from something. It could be solar, it could be harvesting energy from a falling weight. If you’d like to give a TED talk, it could be harvesting energy from sound waves. It could be harvesting energy from ambient RF, and where’s the best place to harvest ambient RF? That’s right, next to a microwave.

[Jurist]’s entry for the Power Harvesting Challenge in this year’s Hackaday Prize is a simple device that mounts to the front door of a microwave. The design uses a simple PCB antenna to harvest energy, an LTC3108 DC/DC converter that was lying around in a junk drawer, and a bunch of passives to suck down some photons escaping from a microwave. The idea for this whole device is to use the harvested power to send off a message over Bluetooth (or whatever) when the microwave is done. Really, though, this falls right into the ‘because I can’ category of weird builds.

So, does this power harvesting PCB work? The initial tests were iffy because there was no trimming of the antenna and no tuning of the circuit. However, after [Jurist] connected the board to a voltmeter and cooked some beans, he was seeing an entire volt across the circuit. It’s a start, and the beginning of a truly ‘smart’ microwave add-on. Really, though, it’s just cool to see a circuit harvest power from a leaking Faraday cage.

Desktop Radio Telescope Images The WiFi Universe

It’s been a project filled with fits and starts, and it very nearly ended up as a “Fail of the Week” feature, but we’re happy to report that the [Thought Emporium]’s desktop WiFi radio telescope finally works. And it’s pretty darn cool.

If you’ve been following along with the build like we have, you’ll know that this stems from a previous, much larger radio telescope that [Justin] used to visualize the constellation of geosynchronous digital TV satellites. This time, he set his sights closer to home and built a system to visualize the 2.4-GHz WiFi band. A simple helical antenna rides on the stepper-driven azimuth-elevation scanner. A HackRF SDR and GNU Radio form the receiver, which just captures the received signal strength indicator (RSSI) value for each point as the antenna scans. The data is then massaged into colors representing the intensity of WiFi signals received and laid over an optical image of the scanned area. The first image clearly showed a couple of hotspots, including a previously unknown router. An outdoor scan revealed routers galore, although that took a little more wizardry to pull off.

The videos below recount the whole tale in detail; skip to part three for the payoff if you must, but at the cost of missing some valuable lessons and a few cool tips, like using flattened pieces of Schedule 40 pipe as a construction material. We hope to see more from the project soon, and wonder if this FPV racing drone tracker might offer some helpful hints for expansion.

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Hacking When It Counts: The Magnetron Goes to War

In 1940, England was in a dangerous predicament. The Nazi war machine had been sweeping across Europe for almost two years, claiming countries in a crescent from Norway to France and cutting off the island from the Continent. The Battle of Britain was raging in the skies above the English Channel and southern coast of the country, while the Blitz ravaged London with a nightly rain of bombs and terror. The entire country was mobilized, prepared for Hitler’s inevitable invasion force to sweep across the Channel and claim another victim.

We’ve seen before that no idea that could possibly help turn the tide was considered too risky or too wild to take a chance on. Indeed, many of the ideas that sprang from the fertile and desperate minds of British inventors went on to influence the course of the war in ways they could never have been predicted. But there was one invention that not only influenced the war but has a solid claim on being its key invention, one without which the outcome of the war almost certainly would have been far worse, and one that would become a critical technology of the post-war era that would lead directly to innovations in communications, material science, and beyond. And the risks taken to develop this idea, the cavity magnetron, and field usable systems based on it are breathtaking in their scope and audacity. Here’s how the magnetron went to war.

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