Saltwater is plentiful, but no good for drinking. Desalinization is the obvious solution, but a big problem isn’t taking the salt out, it’s where all that leftover salt goes. Excess salt accumulates, crystallizes, collects, and clogs a system. Dealing with this means maintenance, which means higher costs, which ultimately limits scalability.
The good news is that engineers at MIT and in China have succeeded in creating a desalination system that avoids this problem by intrinsically flushing accumulated salt as it is created, keeping the system clean. And what’s more, the whole thing is both scalable and entirely passive. The required energy all comes from gravity and the sun’s heat.
To do this, the device is constructed in such a way that it mimics the thermohaline circulation of the ocean on a small scale. This is a process in which temperature and density differentials drive a constant circulation and exchange. In the team’s system, this ultimately flushes concentrations of salt out of the system before it has a chance to collect.
The entirely passive nature of the device, its scalability, and the fact that it could desalinate water without accumulating salt for years means an extremely low cost to operate. The operating principle makes sense, but of course, it is careful engineering that shows it is actually possible. We have seen projects leveraging the passive heating and circulation of water before, but this is a whole new angle on letting the sun do the work.
When first learning about and building electronic circuits, the first things all of us come across are passive components such as resistors, capacitors, and inductors. These have easily-understandable properties and are used in nearly all circuits in some way or another. Eventually we’ll move on to learning about active components like transistors, but there’s a fourth passive circuit component that’s almost never encountered. Known as the memristor, this mysterious device is not quite as intuitive as the other three, so [Andrew] created an Arduino shield to investigate their properties.
Memristors relate electric charge and magnetic flux linkage, which means that their resistance changes based on the current that passes through them. As their name implies, this means they have memory, and retain their properties even after power is removed. [Andrew] is testing three different memristors, composed of tungsten, carbon, and chromium, using this specialized test set. The rig is based on an Arduino Uno and has a few circuit components that can be used as references and generates data on the behavior of the memristors under various situations.
The memristors used here do exhibit expected behavior when driven with positive voltage signals, but did exhibit a large amount of variability when voltage was applied in a negative direction. [Andrew] speculates that using these devices for storage would be difficult and would likely require fairly bespoke applications for each type. But as the applications for these seemingly bizarre circuit components increase, we expect them to improve much like any other passive component.
A thermoelectric generator (TEG) can turn a temperature difference into electricity, and while temperature differentials abound in our environment, it’s been difficult to harness them into practical and stable sources of power. But researchers in China have succeeded in creating a TEG that can passively and continuously generate power, even across shifting environmental conditions. It’s not a lot of power, but that it’s continuous is significant, and it could be enough for remote sensors or similar devices.
Historically, passive TEGs have used ambient air as the “hot” side and some form of high-emissivity heat sink — usually involving exotic materials and processes — as the “cold” side. These devices work, but fail to reliably produce uninterrupted voltage because shifting environmental conditions have too great of an effect on how well the radiative cooling emitter (RCE) can function.
Here is what has changed: since a TEG works on temperature difference between the hot and cold sides, researchers improved performance by attaching an ultra-broadband solar absorber (UBSA) to the hot side, and an RCE to the cold side. The UBSA is very good at absorbing radiation (like sunlight) and turning it into heat, and the RCE is very good at radiating heat away. Together, this ensures enough of temperature difference for the TEG to function in bright sunlight, cloudy sunlight, clear nighttime, and everything in between.
As mentioned, it’s not a lot of power (we’re talking millivolts) but the ability to passively and constantly produce across shifting environmental conditions is something new. And as a bonus, the researchers even found a novel way to create both UBSA and RCE using non-exotic materials and processes. The research paper with additional details is available here.
The ability to deliver uninterrupted power — even in tiny amounts — is a compelling goal. A few years ago we encountered a (much larger) device from a team at MIT that also aimed to turn environmental temperature fluctuations into a trickle of constant power. Their “Thermal Resonator” worked by storing heat in phase-change materials that would slowly move heat across a TEG, effectively generating continuously by stretching temperature changes out over time.
[Marius Hornberger] has been busy hacking his “Hammer” CNC router again, and now it sports a much desired feature — an automatic tool-changer. Having wanted one for a while, [Marius] was unhappy sacrificing a big chunk of useable bed area just to park the tool-changer magazine. An obvious solution would be to have the magazine retract away from the bed, outside of the working area. Sadly, the CNC controller had only enough spare outputs to drive the pneumatic tool changer (mounted on the spindle) leaving none spare to control the magazine assembly. So, there was only one obvious route to take, use some simple spring-loaded mechanics to move the magazine into tool-picking range with the Y axis motion instead.
Obviously, the whole thing is CNC machined on the machine itself, taking only a couple of iterations and smidge of table-saw action to get everything to fit well and operate smoothly without binding or colliding with the moving gantry. A cunning pair of levers on each end of the magazine allow it to move much further than the advancing gantry, swinging it quickly into position when the Y axis is at the extreme of its travel, and retracting away when the gantry moves back. Another nice addition to the build was a tool depth sensor (AKA: a switch) mounted off to one side, which allows the machine to find the bottom of each tool, if it is not known, so the Z axis can compensate. When combined with the automatically retracting dust shoe, this is a definitely a CNC build we’d love to see in a shop near us!
[Billy] has a special interest in passive hydroponics (also known as the Kratky method), which is a way of growing plants in nutrient-rich water that does not circulate. As the plant grows and liquid level drops, only the tips of the roots remain submerged while more and more of the root surface is exposed to oxygen in a harmonious balance. However, “thirsty” plant types (tomatoes, for example) throw off this balance, and the system needs to be modified. To address this, [Billy] designed and printed a passive float valve system that takes care of topping up the reservoir only when needed, without using pumps or any other electrical equipment.
Commercial or industrial float valves are too big to use in his small tanks, which led [Billy] to test dozens of DIY designs. He used everything from plastic water bottles to pipe ends, but nothing quite measured up. With 3D printing, [Billy] was able to create a sealed, lightweight float that exactly matched the housing and tube locations.
The way [Billy]’s float valve works is by using a hollow object as a kind of buoyant plug inside a housing. When the water level is high, the buoyant object rises up and presses a strip of silicone against an outlet, preventing water from flowing. If the water level is low, the buoyant plug drops and water is free to flow. With a reservoir of fresh nutrient-rich water placed above the grow tank, gravity takes care of pushing a fresh supply down a tube, so no active pump is needed. Combined with a passive float valve, the system pretty much runs itself.
Watch [Billy] give a tour of his system and valve design in the video embedded below. He’s got a lot of experience when it comes to working with projects involving liquids. Only someone as comfortable as he is would make his own DIY dishwasher.
Using circuit simulating software like SPICE can be a powerful tool for modeling the behavior of a circuit in the real world. On the other hand, it’s not always necessary to have all of the features of SPICE available all the time, and these programs tend to be quite expensive as well. To that end, [Wes Hileman] noticed an opportunity for a specific, quick method for performing impedance calculations using python without bulky, expensive software and came up with a program which he calls fastZ.
The software works on any network of passive components (resistors, capacitors, and inductors) and the user can specify parallel and series connections using special operators. Not only can the program calculate the combined impedance but it can perform frequency analysis at a specified frequency or graph the frequency response over a wide range of frequencies. It’s also running in python which makes it as simple as importing any other python package, and is also easy to implement in any other python program compared to building a simulation and hoping for the best.
If you find yourself regularly drawing Bode plots or trying to cobble together a circuit simulation to work with your python code, this sort of solution is a great way to save a lot of headache. It is possible to get the a piece of software like SPICE to to work together with other python programs though, often with some pretty interesting results.
Passive homes are a fairly recent trend in home building, but promise a future with minimal energy inputs in our day-to-day. One of the challenges in this year’s Hackaday Prize is to envision ways to add utility to earthen homes often used in refugee camps where there is a housing crisis. Adding passive utilities to these adobe buildings would be a fantastic upgrade, so [Cat] decided to tackle the challenge by creating a refrigerator that needs no electricity.
The the plan for the device works by using evaporative cooling to reduce the temperature in a small box which can be used for food storage. Of course, using evaporative cooling means that you need ready access to water and it likely won’t work in a humid or cool environment, but systems like these have been in use for centuries in plenty of places around the world. [Cat]’s plan is a little more involved than traditional methods of evaporative cooling though, and makes use of a specially painted chimney which provides the airflow when heated by sunlight.
The project is still in its infancy but it would be interesting to see a proof-of-concept built in a real-life passive house in an arid environment. Unfortunately, those of us in humid (or tropical) environments will have to look elsewhere for energy-efficient cooling solutions.