On our news feeds and TV channels at the moment are many stories concerning the war in Ukraine, and among them is one which may have an effect on the high-tech industries. It seems that a significant percentage of the world’s neon gas is produced in Ukrainian factories, and there is concern among pundits and electronics manufacturers that a disruption of this supply could be a further problem for an industry already reeling from the COVID-related chip shortage. It’s thus worth taking a quick look at the neon business from an engineering perspective to perhaps make sense of some of those concerns.
As most readers will know from their high school chemistry lessons, neon is one of the so-called inert gasses, sitting in the column at the extreme right of the Periodic table. It occurs in nature as a small percentage of the air we breathe and is extracted from the air by fractional distillation of the liquid phase. The important point from the above sentences is that the same neon is all around us in the air as there is in Ukraine, in other words, there is no strategic neon mine in the Ukrainian countryside about to be overrun by the Russian invaders.
So why do we source so much neon from Ukraine, if we’re constantly breathing the stuff in and out everywhere else in the world? Since the air separation industry is alive and well worldwide for the production of liquid nitrogen and oxygen as well as the slightly more numerous inert gasses, we’re guessing that the answer lies in economics. It’s a bit harder to extract neon from air than it is argon because there is less of it in the air. Since it can be brought for a reasonable cost from the Ukrainians who have made it their business to extract it, there is little benefit in American or Western European companies trying to compete. Our take is that if the supply of Ukrainian neon is interrupted there may be a short period of neon scarcity. After that, air extraction companies will quite speedily install whatever extra plant they need in order to service the demand. If that’s your area of expertise, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Here at Hackaday we are saddened beyond words at what has happened in Ukraine, and we hope our Ukrainian readers and those Ukrainian hackers whose work we’ve featured make it through safely. We sincerely hope that this madness can be ended and that we can mention the country in the context of cool hacks again rather than war.
Ah, the humble neon lamp. The familiar warm orange glow has graced the decks of many a DIY timepiece, sometimes in a purely indicating duty, and sometimes forming a memory element in place of a more conventional semiconductor device. Capable of many other tricks such as the ability to protect RF circuits from HV transients, its negative resistance operating region after it illuminates gives us usable hysteresis which can used to form a switching element and the way the pair of electrodes are arranged give it the ability to indicate whether a voltage source is AC or DC. Now, due to some recent research by [Johan Carlsson] and the team at Princeton University, the humble NE-2 tube has a new trick up its sleeve: acoustic transduction.
The idea is not new at all, with some previous attempts at using electric discharge in a gas to detect audio, going back to the early part of last century, but those attempts either used atmospheric pressure air or other non-sealed devices that exhibited quite a lot of electrical noise as well as producing noxious gases. Not ideal.
We always enjoy history videos from [The History Guy] but they don’t always cover technology history. When they do, though, we enjoy them twice as much as with the recent video he posted on the history of neon signs. Of course, as he points out, many neon lights don’t have actual neon in them — they use various noble gasses depending on the color you want. Sure, some have neon, but the name has stuck.
The back part of the video is more about the signs themselves, but the early portion talks about [William Ramsay], a Scot chemist who started extracting component gasses out of the atmosphere. The first one found was argon and then helium. Krypton and neon were not far behind. The other noble gas, Xenon, also fell to his experiments. He and another scientist won the Nobel for this work.
When they were invented in the 1950s, Nixie tubes were a huge leap forward in display technology. In the days before affordable LEDs made seven-segment displays a commodity, there were few alternatives to the charming glow of the clear and legible characters inside Nixies. Sturdy and reliable, the cold-cathode displays found their way into everything from scientific instruments to test equipment, and even some of the earliest computers and the equipment that formed the foundation of the Space Race sported the venerable tubes.
But time marches on, and a display that requires high voltage and special driver circuits isn’t long for a world where LEDs are cheap and easy to design with. Nixies fell from favor through the late 1960s and 1970s, to the point where new tubes were only being made by the Russians, until that supply dried up as well. Rediscovered by hobbyists for use in quirky clocks and other displays, any stock left over from the Nixie’s heyday are quickly being snapped up, putting the tubes on the fast track to unobtainium status.
That’s not to say that you can’t get brand new Nixie tubes, of course. Artisanal manufacturers like Dalibor Farný have taken the Nixie to a whole new level, with big, beautiful tubes that are handcrafted from the best materials. Reviving the somewhat lost art of Nixie manufacturing wasn’t easy, but the tubes that Dalibor makes in a castle in the Czech Republic now find their way into cool clocks and other builds around the world. He’ll join us on the Hack Chat to dive into the art and science of Nixies, and what’s going on with his mysterious “Project H”.
Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.
The project consists of an 8×48 matrix display constructed out of INS-1 (ИНC-1) tubes. These tiny neon tubes are 6.5 mm in diameter, showing a bright orange dot of light when powered up. Requiring just 100 V and 0.5 mA to light, they’re a touch easier to drive than the famous Nixie.
[Pierre] decided to go all out, wishing to replicate the capabilities of smart LEDs like the WS2812. These contain a microcontroller built in to each LED, so [Pierre] would have to do the same. Each of the 384 neon tubes got its own bespoke PCB, containing a PIC16F15313 microcontroller, step up voltage circuitry, and a 6-pin connector. (Whoah!) When each bulb was soldered to its PCB, they were then plugged into a backplane. An ESP32 was then employed to drive the display as a whole.
Creating a display in this fashion takes a huge amount of work, with most of it being soldering the 384 individual bulb PCBs containing 11 components each. We have a lot of respect for [Pierre]’s work ethic to get this done during lockdown, and the final result is a gloriously retro neon matrix display. We’ve featured other neon matrixes recently, too. Video after the break. Continue reading “384 Neon Bulbs Become Attractive Display”→
The low-cost LED has changed the way we approach lighting in all its forms, allowing complex addressable displays and all sorts of lighting goodness. But what did we do before we had cheap LED arrays? Use neon bulbs, perhaps? That’s exactly what [Manawyrm] has done with his chainable 8×8 neon matrix boards, taking 64 neon indicator bulbs and driving each from mains potential with an individual triac. A line of 74HC595s handle the data transfer, floating at mains voltage while their ESP32 driver is kept safe by a set of isolators.
Neons have generally featured here as novelties rather than as significant displays in their own right. They’re interesting components that everyone should have a play with, not least because the possess negative resistance, and can be made to oscillate.
No matter what you think about Nixie tubes, you’ve got to admit that having a Nixie custom made for you would be pretty cool. The cost of such a vanity project is probably prohibitive, but our friends at Keysight managed to convince none other than [Dalibor Farný] to immortalize their logo in glass, metal, and neon, and the results are beautiful.
Nixie aficionados and lovers of fine craftsmanship will no doubt be familiar with [Dalibor]’s high-end, hand-built Nixie tubes, the creation of which we’ve covered before. He’s carved out a niche in this limited market by turning the quality far above what you can find on the surplus Nixie market, and his custom tubes grace sleek, distinctive clocks that really make a statement. Bespoke tubes are not a normal offering, but he decided to tackle the build because it gave him a chance to experiment with new methods and materials. Chief among these are the mesh cathodes seen in the video below. Most Nixies have thin cathodes for each character cut from solid sheet metal. The elements of the Keysight logo were skeletonized, with a solid border and a hexagonal mesh infill. We’d have loved to see the process used to create those pieces — laser cutting, perhaps?
The bulk of the video is watching the painstaking assembly process, which centers around the glassblower’s lathe. It’s fascinating to watch, and the finished, somewhat out-sized tube is a work of art, although part of the display seems a little dark. Even though, [Dalibor] needs to be careful — plenty of outfits would love to see their logo Nixie-fied. Wouldn’t a Jolly Wrencher tube look amazing?