Have you ever sat down and thought “I wonder if a trebuchet could launch a projectile at supersonic speeds?” Neither have we. That’s what separates [David Eade] from the rest of us. He didn’t just ask the question, he answered it! And he documented the entire build in a YouTube video which you can see below the break.
The trebuchet is a type of catapult that was popular for use as a siege engine before gunpowder became a thing. Trebuchets use a long arm to throw projectiles farther than traditional catapults. The focus has typically been on increasing throwing distance for the size of the projectile, or vice versa. But of course you’re here to read about the other thing that trebuchets can be used for: speed.
How fast is fast? How about a whip-cracking, sonic-booming speed in excess of 450 meters per second! How’d he do it? Mostly wood and rubber with some metal bits thrown in for safety’s sake. [David]’s video explains in full all of the engineering that went into his trebuchet, and it’s a lot less than you’d think. There’s a very satisfying montage of full power trebuchet launches that make it audibly clear that the projectile being thrown is going well past the speed of sound, with a report quite similar to that of a small rifle.
[David]’s impressive project and presentation makes it clear that all one has to do to build a supersonic trebuchet is to try. Just be careful, and watch where you shoot that thing before you put somebody’s eye out, ok?
The nuclear age changed steel, and for decades we had to pay the price for it. The first tests of the atomic bomb were a milestone in many ways, and have left a mark in history and in the surface of the Earth. The level of background radiation in the air increased, and this had an effect on the production of steel, so that steel produced since 1945 has had elevated levels of radioactivity. This can be a problem for sensitive instruments, so there was a demand for steel called low background steel, which was made before the trinity tests.
The production of steel is done with the Bessemer process, which takes the molten pig iron and blasts air through it. By pumping air through the steel, the oxygen reacts with impurities and oxidizes, and the impurities are drawn out either as gas or slag, which is then skimmed off. The problem is that the atmospheric air has radioactive impurities of its own, which are deposited into the steel, yielding a slightly radioactive material. Since the late 1960s steel production uses a slightly modified technique called the BOS, or Basic Oxygen Steelmaking, in which pure oxygen is pumped through the iron. This is better, but radioactive material can still slip through. In particular, we’re interested in cobalt, which dissolves very easily in steel, so it isn’t as affected by the Bessemer or BOS methods. Sometimes cobalt is intentionally added to steel, though not the radioactive isotope, and only for very specialized purposes.
Recycling is another reason that modern steel stays radioactive. We’ve been great about recycling steel, but the downside is that some of those impurities stick around.
Why Do We Need Low Background Steel?
Imagine you have a sensor that needs to be extremely sensitive to low levels of radiation. This could be Geiger counters, medical devices, or vehicles destined for space exploration. If they have a container that is slightly radioactive it creates an unacceptable noise floor. That’s where Low Background Steel comes in.
So where do you get steel, which is a man-made material, that was made before 1945? Primarily from the ocean, in sunken ships from WWII. They weren’t exposed to the atomic age air when they were made, and haven’t been recycled and mixed with newer radioactive steel. We literally cut the ships apart underwater, scrape off the barnacles, and reuse the steel.
Fortunately, this is a problem that’s going away on its own, so the headline is really only appropriate as a great reference to a popular movie. After 1975, testing moved underground, reducing, but not eliminating, the amount of radiation pumped into the air. Since various treaties ending the testing of nuclear weapons, and thanks to the short half-life of some of the radioactive isotopes, the background radiation in the air has been decreasing. Cobalt-60 has a half-life of 5.26 years, which means that steel is getting less and less radioactive on its own (Cobalt-60 from 1945 would now be at .008% of original levels). The newer BOS technique exposes the steel to fewer impurities from the air, too. Eventually the need for special low background steel will be just a memory.
Oddly enough, steel isn’t the only thing that we’ve dragged from the bottom of the ocean. Ancient Roman lead has also had a part in modern sensing.
For a brief period in the 1940’s it might have been possible for a young enamored soul to hand his hopeful a romantic mix-spool of wire. This was right before the magnetic tape recorder and its derivatives came into full swing and dominated the industry thoroughly until the advent of the compact disk and under a hundred kilogram hard disk drives. [Techmoan] tells us all about it in this video.
The device works as one would expect, but it still sounds a little crazy. Take a ridiculously long spool of steel wire the size of a human hair(a 1 hour spool was 2.2km of wire), wind that through a recording head at high speed, magnetize the wire, and spool it onto a receiving spool.
If you’re really lucky the wire won’t dramatically break causing an irreversible tangle of wire. At that point you can reverse the process and hear the recorded sound. As [Techmoan] shows, the sound can best be described as… almost okay. Considering that its chief competition at the time was sound carved into expensive aluminum acetate plates, this wasn’t the worst.
The wire recorder lived on for a few more years in niche applications such as airplane black boxes. It finally died, but it does sound like a really fun couple-of-weekends project to try and build one. Make sure and take good pictures and send it in if any of you do.