Digging In The Dirt Yields Homebrew Inductors

Let’s say you’re stranded on a desert island and want to get the news from the outside world. You’ll have to build your own crystal radio, of course, but your parts bin is nowhere to be found and Digi-Key isn’t delivering. So you’ll need to MacGuyver some components. Capacitors are easy with a couple of pieces of tinfoil, and a rectifier can be made from a pencil and a razor blade. But what about an inductor?¬†Sure, air-core inductors will work, but just because you’re marooned doesn’t mean you’ve abandoned your engineering principles. Luckily, you’ve read [AC7ZL]’s treatise of making inductors from dirt, and with sand in abundance, you’re able to harvest enough material to put together some passable ferrite-core inductors.

Obviously, making your own inductive elements isn’t practical even in fanciful and contrived situations, but that doesn’t make the doing of it any less cool. The story begins with a walk in the Arizona desert many years ago, where [AC7ZL], aka [H.P. Friedrichs], spied bands of dark sand shooting through the underlying lighter sediments. These bands turned out to be magnetite, one of many iron-bearing minerals found in the area. Using a powerful magnet from an old hard drive and a plastic food container, he was able to harvest magnetite sand in abundance and refine it with multiple washing steps.

After experimentally determining the material’s permeability — about 2.3 H/m — [AC7ZL] proceeded with some practical applications. He was able to make a bar antenna for an AM radio by packing the sand into a PVC pipe and rewinding the coils around it. More permanent cores were made by mixing the sand with polyester resin and casting it into bars. Toroids were machined from fat bars of the composite on a lathe, much to the detriment of the cutting tools used.

The full-length PDF account of [AC7ZL]’s experiments makes for fascinating reading — the inductive elements he was able to create all performed great in everything from a Joule Thief to a Hartley oscillator up to 27 MHz. We love these kinds of stories, which remind us of some of the work being done by [Simplifier] and others.

Radio Tuning The Quicksilver Way

Modern radios are often digital affairs, in which the frequency is derived from a stable crystal oscillator and varied through a microprocessor controlled frequency synthesiser. It won’t drift, and it’s exactly on the frequency dialed in. Older radios though relied on a tuned circuit, a combination of capacitor and inductor, for their frequency selection. If you were curious enough to peer inside — and we know you were¬†— you’d have seen the moving vanes of a variable capacitor controlled by the tuning knob.

Of course, there is another way to adjust a tuned circuit: by changing the value of the inductor. Older car radios for instance moved a ferrite slug inside a coil to tune from station to station. But that method is not good enough for [David Mills]. Being in possession of some finely graduated syringes he decided to try liquid tuning by increasing the volume within the coil.

Solutions of salts made little difference, so he reached for some mercury. The result is an RF inductor wound round a syringe body, with a body of mercury whose position can be adjusted by the plunger. He measures the Q factor of the coil with air core or mercury core, and as the inductance decreases with more mercury, so does the Q.

We see home-made parts from time to time, and there’s nothing too special about permeability tuning. However, this unusual take on the matter makes this one rather special. We doubt we’ll see its like very often in the future.