Mining And Refining: Lithium, Powering The Future With Brine

Many years ago, I read an article about the new hotness: lithium batteries. The author opened with what he no doubt thought was a clever pop culture reference by saying that the mere mention of lithium would “strike fear in the hearts of Klingons.” It was a weak reference to the fictional “dilithium crystals” of Star Trek fame, and even then I found it a bit cheesy, but I guess he had to lead with something.

Decades later, a deeper understanding of the lore makes it clear that a Klingon’s only fear is death with dishonor, but there is a species here on earth that lives in dread of lithium: CEOs of electric vehicle manufacturing concerns. For them, it’s not the presence of lithium that strikes fear, but the relative absence of it; while it’s the 25th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and gigatons are dissolved into the oceans of the world, lithium is very reactive and thus tends to be diffuse, making it difficult to obtain concentrated in the quantities their businesses depend on.

As the electric vehicle and renewable energy markets continue to grow, the need for lithium to manufacture batteries will grow with it, potentially to the point where demand outstrips the mining industry’s production capability. To understand how that imbalance may be possible, we’ll take a look at how lithium is currently mined, as well as examine some new mining techniques that may help fill the coming lithium gap.

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NTP server heated with Bitcoin mining dongles

Bitcoin Mining ASICs Repurposed To Keep NTP Server On Track

They say time is money, but if that’s true, money must also be time. It’s all figurative, of course, but in the case of this NTP server heater powered by Bitcoin mining dongles, money actually does become time.

This is an example of the lengths to which Network Time Protocol aficionados will go in search of slightly better performance from their NTP servers. [Folkert van Heusden], having heard that thermal stability keeps NTP servers happy, used a picnic cooler as an environmental chamber for his  Pi- and GPS-based NTP rig. Heat is added to the chamber thanks to seven Block Erupter ASIC miner dongles, which are turned on by a Python script when a microcontroller sends an MQTT message that the temperature has dropped below the setpoint.

Each dongle produces about 2.5 Watts of heat when it’s working, making them pretty effective heaters. Alas, heat is all they produce at the moment — [Folkert] just has them working on the same hash over and over. He does say that he has plans to let the miners do useful work at some point, not so much for profit but to at least help out the network a bit.

This seems like a bit of a long way around to solve this problem, but since the mining dongles are basically obsolete now — we talked about them way back in 2013 — it has a nice hacky feeling to it that we appreciate.

Borehole Camera Rig Makes Life Easier In Mining

Much of mining involves digging and drilling holes in the ground. Often, these holes need inspecting, but [Dean Harty] found that existing borehole inspection solutions weren’t up to snuff. Resolution was poor, and often live-view devices made recording footage a pain. Instead, he set about the development of the Sneaky Peaky, going through several revisions in the process.

The first revision was nothing more than a GoPro strapped to a small penny board, paired with a bright flashlight. The 4K resolution of the GoPro provided useful footage, and the assembly could be lowered into boreholes on a rope and retrieved easily. Rugged and water resistant, the gear worked well, and was remarkably cheap compared to more obscure mining industry hardware.

An early version of the Sneaky Peaky

Later revisions ditched the skateboard, replacing it with a pipe-style housing instead. Key to the design was that the device could readily be destroyed and flushed out of a borehole with an air blast in the event it got stuck.

Eventually, mining outfit Metrologi got involved, having worked with [Dean] on several borehole backfill operations. A 3D-printed chassis was developed to hold an action camera and twin torches, held together with plastic zip ties. These are attached to the pull rope, and if the camera becomes jammed, a sharp pull will snap the ties and cause the device to fall apart. Steel cable ties are then used to create flexible guides to center the assembly in a variety of pipe diameters.

It’s a great example of people on the ground hacking together the tools they need, combined with iterative design to integrate improvements over time. We don’t talk about boreholes much around here, but they can be musical if properly employed, as it turns out. If you’ve got your own great mining hacks, however, do drop us a line!

What’s Chia, And Why Is It Eating All The Hard Drives?

At this point the average Hackaday reader is likely familiar with so-called “Proof of Work” (PoW) cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Dogecoin. In the most basic of terms, these cryptocurrencies allow users to earn money by devoting computational power to the network. Unfortunately, it’s well past the point where your standard desktop CPU is moving enough bits to earn anything worthwhile. Individuals looking to turn a profit have therefore resorted to constructing arrays of high-end graphics cards for the express purpose of “mining” their cryptocurrency of choice.

These miners, combined with ongoing chip shortages, have ravaged the GPU market. Anyone who’s looked at building or upgrading a computer recently will know that new video cards are in short supply, and even old models that would otherwise be considered budget options, are commanding outrageous prices. In an effort to appease their core customers, NVIDIA has even introduced cryptocurrency-specific cards that lack video output. The hope was that professional miners would buy these Cryptocurrency Mining Processors (CMPs) instead of the traditional video cards, freeing up the latter for purchase by gamers. But due to the limited availability and relatively high cost of CMPs, they’ve done little to improve the situation.

Now if you don’t use your computer for gaming, this probably seems like a distant problem. You could even be forgiven for thinking of this as little more than two largely frivolous pursuits at loggerheads with each other. After all, in a community that still holds decades-old Thinkpads as the high water mark in portable computing, a certain ambivalence about cutting edge video cards is perhaps to be expected.

But there’s a new form of cryptocurrency on the rise which threatens more than just the hardcore gamers. With “Proof of Space” (PoS) cryptocurrencies, it’s not about having the fastest CPU or the highest number of GPUs; the commodity being traded is storage space, and the player with the most hard drives wins.

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Hackaday Links: May 30, 2021

That collective “Phew!” you heard this week was probably everyone on the Mars Ingenuity helicopter team letting out a sigh of relief while watching telemetry from the sixth and somewhat shaky flight of the UAV above Jezero crater. With Ingenuity now in an “operations demonstration” phase, the sixth flight was to stretch the limits of what the craft can do and learn how it can be used to scout out potential sites to explore for its robot buddy on the surface, Perseverance.

While the aircraft was performing its 150 m move to the southwest, the stream from the downward-looking navigation camera dropped a single frame. By itself, that wouldn’t have been so bad, but the glitch caused subsequent frames to come in with the wrong timestamps. This apparently confused the hell out of the flight controller, which commanded some pretty dramatic moves in the roll and pitch axes — up to 20° off normal. Thankfully, the flight controller was designed to handle just such an anomaly, and the aircraft was able to land safely within five meters of its planned touchdown. As pilots say, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing, so we’ll chalk this one up as a win for the Ingenuity team, who we’re sure are busily writing code to prevent this from happening again.

If wobbling UAVs on another planet aren’t enough cringe for you, how about a blind mechanical demi-ostrich drunk-walking up and down a flight of stairs? The work comes from the Oregon State University and Agility Robotics, and the robot in question is called Cassie, an autonomous bipedal bot with a curious, bird-like gait. Without cameras or lidar for this test, the robot relied on proprioception, which detects the angle of joints and the feedback from motors when the robot touches a solid surface. And for ten tries up and down the stairs, Cassie did pretty well — she only failed twice, with only one counting as a face-plant, if indeed she had a face. We noticed that the robot often did that little move where you misjudge the step and land with the instep of your foot hanging over the tread; that one always has us grabbing for the handrail, but Cassie was able to power through it every time. The paper describing how Cassie was trained is pretty interesting — too bad ED-209’s designers couldn’t have read it.

So this is what it has come to: NVIDIA is now purposely crippling its flagship GPU cards to make them less attractive to cryptocurrency miners. The LHR, or “Lite Hash Rate” cards include new-manufactured GeForce RTX 3080, 3070, and 3060 Ti cards, which will now have reduced Ethereum hash rates baked into the chip from the factory. When we first heard about this a few months ago, we puzzled a bit — why would a GPU card manufacturer care how its cards are used, especially if they’re selling a ton of them. But it makes sense that NVIDIA would like to protect their brand with their core demographic — gamers — and having miners snarf up all the cards and leaving none for gamers is probably a bad practice. So while it makes sense, we’ll have to wait and see how the semi-lobotomized cards are received by the market, and how the changes impact other non-standard uses for them, like weather modeling and genetic analysis.

Speaking of crypto, we found it interesting that police in the UK accidentally found a Bitcoin mine this week while searching for an illegal cannabis growing operation. It turns out that something that uses a lot of electricity, gives off a lot of heat, and has people going in and out of a small storage unit at all hours of the day and night usually is a cannabis farm, but in this case it turned out to be about 100 Antminer S9s set up on janky looking shelves. The whole rig was confiscated and hauled away; while Bitcoin mining is not illegal in the UK, stealing the electricity to run the mine is, which the miners allegedly did.

And finally, we have no idea what useful purpose this information serves, but we do know that it’s vitally important to relate to our dear readers that yellow LEDs change color when immersed in liquid nitrogen. There’s obviously some deep principle of quantum mechanics at play here, and we’re sure someone will adequately explain it in the comments. But for now, it’s just a super interesting phenomenon that has us keen to buy some liquid nitrogen to try out. Or maybe dry ice — that’s a lot easier to source.

Oil Wells Done Rube-Goldberg Style: Flatrods And Jerk Lines

The news is full of the record low oil price due to the COVID-19-related drop in demand. The benchmark Brent crude dipped below $20 a barrel, while West Texas intermediate entered negative pricing. We’ve all become oil market watchers overnight, and for some of us that’s led down a rabbit hole of browsing to learn a bit about how oil is extracted.

Many of us will have seen offshore oil platforms or nodding pumpjacks, but how many of us outside the industry have much more than a very superficial knowledge of it? Of all the various technologies to provide enlightenment of the curious technologist there’s one curious survivor from the earliest days of the industry that is definitely worth investigation, the jerk line oil well pump. This is a means of powering a reciprocating pump in an oil well not through an individual engine or motor as in the pump jacks, but in a system of rods transmitting power over long distances from a central location by means of reciprocating motion. It’s gloriously simple, which has probably contributed to its survival in a few small-scale oil fields over a century and a half after its invention.

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How Can Heavy Metal Fly?

Scientists found a surprising amount of lead in a glacier. They were studying atmospheric pollution by sampling ice cores taken from Alpine glaciers. The surprising part is that they found more lead in strata from the late 13th century than they had in those deposited at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Surely mediaeval times were supposed to be more about knights in shining armour than dark satanic mills, what on earth was going on? Why was the lead industry in overdrive in an age when a wooden water wheel represented high technology?

The answer lies in the lead smelting methods used a thousand miles away from that glacier, and in the martyrdom of a mediaeval saint.

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