We’re used to loudspeakers as circular components with a paper cone and a big magnet inside which is suspended a coil that is connected to our audio amplifier. But moving-coil speakers are not the only way to create sound from electricity, there are one or two other weapons in the audio designer’s arsenal.
One of the more spectacular and entertaining is the plasma speaker, and it’s one [Marcin Wachowiak] has been experimenting with. A continuous plasma in the form of a discharge between two electrodes is modulated with an audio signal, and the resulting rapid changes in the volume of plasma creates a sound. The value of a plasma speaker lies in the exceptionally low size and mass of the element producing the sound, meaning that while it can only effectively reproduce high frequencies it can do so from a much closer approximation to a point source than can other types of tweeter. For this reason it’s beloved of some audiophiles, and you will find a few commercially produced plasma tweeters at the high-end of the audio market.
[Marcin] isn’t in it for the audiophilia, instead he’s interested in the properties of the plasma. His plasma speaker does do the job well though, and in particular he’s put a lot of thought into the design of its drive circuit. At its heart is the ubiquitous TL494 PWM controller that you may be more familiar with in the context of switching power supplies, this one applies the audio drive as PWM to the gate of a MOSFET that switches the primary of a flyback transformer. He’s added refinements such as a gate discharge circuit and a second primary winding with a freewheel diode.
The result is an effective plasma speaker. It’s difficult to judge from his YouTube video below the break whether he’s achieved audiophile purity, but happily that’s not the point. We’ve shown you a few other plasma speakers in our time, if the subject interests you then take a look at this rotating plasma vortex, or a version using a 555 timer.
Switches seem to be the simplest of electrical components – just two pieces of metal that can be positioned to either touch each other or not. As such it would seem that it shouldn’t matter whether a switch is used for AC or DC. While that’s an easy and understandable assumption, it can also be a dangerous one, as this demo of AC and DC switching dramatically reveals.
Using a very simple test setup, consisting of an electric heater for a load, a variac to control the voltage, and a homemade switch, [John Ward] walks us through the details of what happens when those contacts get together. With low-voltage AC, the switch contacts exhibit very little arcing, and even with the voltage cranked up all the way, little more than a brief spark can be seen on either make or break. Then [John] built a simple DC supply with a big rectifier and a couple of capacitors to smooth things out and went through the same tests. Even at a low DC voltage, the arc across the switch contacts was dramatic, particularly upon break. With the voltage cranked up to the full 240-volts of the UK mains, [John]’s switch was essentially a miniature arc welder, with predictable results as the plastic holding the contacts melted. Don your welding helmet and check out the video below.
As dramatic as the demo is, it doesn’t mean we won’t ever be seeing DC in the home. It just means that a little extra engineering is needed to make sure that all the components are up to snuff.
The build starts with an unlikely source for parts – an old automotive AC compressor. The one that [Made in Poland] chose to sacrifice was particularly nasty and greasy, but after popping off the pulley, the treasure within was revealed: the large, ring-shaped clutch electromagnet. Liberated from the compressor, the electromagnet was attached to a small frame holding a pillow block. That acts as an axis for an adjustable-length arm, the other end of which holds a modified angle grinder. In use, the electromagnet is powered up by a small 12-volt power supply, fixing the jig in place on the stock. The angle grinder is traced around and makes a surprisingly clean cut. Check out the build and the tool in use in the video below.
At the time [Made in Poland] recorded the video, he noted that he did not have a plasma cutter. That appears to have changed lately, so perhaps he’ll swap out the angle grinder for plasma. And maybe he’ll motorize it for even smoother cuts.
No microcontroller, no display, and not even an LED in sight. That’s how [Made in Poland] decided to roll with this motorized linear plasma cutter, and despite the simplicity it really gets the job done when there’s metal to be cut.
Plasma cutting makes slicing and dicing heavy stock a quick job, but it’s easy to go off course with the torch or to vary the speed and end up with a poor edge. This tool takes the shakes out of the equation with a completely homebrew linear slide fabricated from square tubing. A carriage to hold the plasma cutter torch moves on a length of threaded rod chucked into the remains of an old cordless drill. The original clutch of the drill removes the need for limit switches when the carriage hits either end of the slide, which we thought was a great touch. Simple speed and direction controls are provided, as is a connection in parallel with the torch’s trigger. One nice feature of the carriage is the ability to swivel the torch at an angle, making V-groove welds in thick stock a snap. No need for a complicated bed with sacrificial supports and a water bath, either — just hang the stock over the edge of a table and let the sparks fall where they may.
Simple is better sometimes, but a CNC plasma table may still be your heart’s desire. We understand.
[Nixie] wants to sputter. We know, who doesn’t? But [Nixie] has a specific purpose for his sputtering: thin-film deposition, presumably in support of awesome science. But getting to that point requires a set of tools that aren’t exactly off-the-shelf items, so he’s building out a DIY sputtering rig on the cheap.
If you’re not familiar with sputtering, that’s understandable. In this context, sputtering is a process that transfers particles from one solid to another by bombarding the first solid with some sort of energetic particles, usually electrons or a plasma. When properly controlled, sputtering has applications from mass spectrometry to the semiconductor industry, where it’s used to either deposit thin films on silicon wafers or etch them away selectively.
No matter the application, sputtering needs a stable stream of plasma. [Nixie] has posted a series of articles on his blog walking us through his plasma experiments, from pulling a really strong vacuum to building a high-voltage power supply from a microwave oven transformer. It’s a project that needs a deep well of skills and tools, like glassworking, machining, and high-voltage electronics. Check out the plasma in the video below.
The jet of pure water emerges from a 0.004″, or 100 micron, diameter sapphire orifice with a flow rate of around 2 milliliters per second giving a speed of 240 meters per second. It collides at 90° with a dielectric material where the plasma is produced as a toroid surrounding the collision point.
There’s been very little research into the phenomena but a proposal from one research paper which [Ben] found is that the plasma is a result of charging due to the triboelectric effect. This is the same effect which charges a balloon when you rub it against your hair, except that here there are water molecules running across a clear dielectric such as fused quartz. This effect results in a positively charged anode downstream of the collision while the water near the point of highest shear becomes conductive and conducts negative charge to the point of smallest curvature, producing a cathode. The electric field at the small-radius cathode acts like a short point with a high voltage on it, ionizing the air and forming the plasma. If this form of ionization sounds familiar, that’s because we’ve talked it occurring between the sharp wire and rounded foil skirt of a flying lifter.
[Ben] found support for the triboelectric theory when he substituted oil for the water. This didn’t produce any plasma, which is be expected since unlike water, oil is a non-polar molecule. However, while the researchers tried just a few dielectric materials, [Ben] had success with every transparent dielectric which he tried, including fused quartz, lithium niobate, glass, polycarbonate, and acrylic, some of which are very triboelectrically different from each other. So there’s room here for more theorizing. But check out his full video showing his equipment for producing the waterjet as well as his demonstrations and explanation.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that the US military is very interested in using lasers as weapons. Directed energy weapons such as lasers have many advantages over more traditional kinetic weaponry, not least of which the fact that you don’t need to cart around ammunition for them. But somewhat surprisingly, some of the most promising laser developments have been in the field of non-lethal weaponry. While the mental image of a laser is usually a destructive one, recent demonstrations by the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program show lasers can do more than blow holes your target.
As reported by [Patrick Tucker] of Defense One, a radical new laser-powered sonic weapon was shown off at the “Directed Energy to DC Exhibition”. The system uses two lasers: one to generate a ball of plasma when it hits the target, and another to modulate the plasma ball in open air. The result is a variation of the classic plasma speaker demonstration, where plasma is used as a a driver for a massless speaker.
Currently the system is capable of generating a deafening crack at the target area, with a measured intensity as high as 140 dB. That’s about as loud as fireworks or a shotgun going off at close distance, and in theory is enough to drive off whoever is unlucky enough to be targeted with the beam.
In time, the researchers hope to refine their secondary modulation laser to the point that they can play audio over the plasma. This would allow the beam to be used as a directed loud speaker of sorts, which could prove useful for defensive applications. Only the target would be able to hear the audio, which could be a recording telling them they were entering a secured area. A disembodied voice telling you to turn around sounds like a extremely effective non-violent deterrent to us. The voices in our head don’t have to tell us twice.
We recently looked at the possibility of targeted sonic weapons being used in Cuba, and of course, we’ve covered many plasma speakers on Hackaday over the years. Plasma speakers have always been more or less nothing more than a fun high voltage demonstration, so to see them potentially weaponized is a crossover episode we weren’t expecting.