Plasma Discharges Show You Where The Radiation Is

Depending on the context of the situation, the staccato clicks or chirps of a Geiger counter can be either comforting or alarming. But each pip is only an abstraction, an aural indication of when a particle or ray of ionizing radiation passed through a detector. Knowing where that happened might be important, too, under the right circumstances.

While this plasma radiation detector is designed more as a demonstration, it does a pretty good job at localizing where ionization events are happening. Designed and built by [Jay Bowles], the detector is actually pretty simple. Since [Jay] is the type of fellow with plenty of spare high-voltage power supplies lying around, he took a 6 kV flyback supply from an old build and used it here. The detector consists of a steel disk underneath a network of fine wires. Perched atop a frame of acrylic and powered by a 9 V battery, the circuit puts high-voltage across the plate and the wires. After a substantial amount of tweaking, [Jay] got it adjusted so that passing alpha particles from a sample of americium-241 left an ionization trail between the conductors, leading to a miniature lightning bolt.

In the video below, the detector sounds very similar to a Geiger counter, but with the added benefit of a built-in light show. We like the way it looks and works, although we’d perhaps advise a little more caution to anyone disassembling a smoke detector. Especially if you’re taking apart Soviet-era smoke alarms — you might get more than you bargained for.

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Electric Candle Replaces Flame With Plasma

Ah, the charm of candlelight! Nothing says “romance” — or “extended power outage” — like the warm, soft glow of a real candle. But if you’re not a fan of burning wax for whatever reason, this electric plasma candle may be just the thing to build for your next dinner for two.

This re-imagining of the humble candle comes to us by way of plasma super-fan [Jay Bowles], who has a lot of experience with plasmas and the high-voltage circuits that often go along with them. Even so, he had to enlist help with the circuit, with is essentially a 10-MHz Class-E oscillator, from [Leon] at the Teslaundmehr channel on YouTube. The most prominent feature of the build is the big resonator coil, surrounded by the shorter primary coil and sitting atop the heatsink for the MOSFET driver. [Jay]’s usual acrylic-rich style is well represented here, and the resulting build is quite lovely.

The tuning process, though, sounds like it was pure torture. It took a lot of tweaking — and a lot of MOSFETs — to get the candle to produce a stable flame. But once it did, the results were striking. The plasma coming off the breakout point on the resonator coil is pretty much the same size, shape, and — occasionally — the color as a candle flame. It’s also hot enough to do some damage, so do be careful if you build this. We’ve included both [Jay]’s and [Leon]’s videos below; [Leon]’s has great step-by-step build instructions.

We’ve been following [Jay]’s journey through the plasmaverse for a while now, from his cheap and simple Tesla coils to using corona discharge to clean his hands. He even hosted a Hack Chat on the subject last year.

Note: [Jay] reached out to us after publication about mitigating RF noise. He does his experiments inside a steel-reinforced concrete building with grounded metal screens over the windows. An RF-wizard friend has checked across the spectrum and detected no leaks to the outside. Sounds like the business to us.

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Micromachining Glass With A Laser — Very, Very Slowly

When it comes to machining, the material that springs to mind is likely to be aluminum, steel, or plastic. We don’t necessarily think of glass as a material suitable for machining, at least not in the chuck-it-up-in-the-lathe sense. But glass is a material that needs to be shaped, too, and there are a bunch of different ways to accomplish that. Few, though, are as interesting as micromachining glass with laser-induced plasma bubbles. (Video, embedded below.)

The video below is from [Zachary Tong]. It runs a bit on the longish side, but we found it just chock full of information. The process, formally known as “laser-induced backside wet-etching,” uses a laser to blast away at a tank of copper sulfate. When a piece of glass is suspended on the surface of the solution and the laser is focused through the glass from the top, some interesting things happen.

The first pulse of the laser vaporizes the solution and decomposes the copper sulfate. Copper adsorbs onto the glass surface inside the protective vapor bubble, which lasts long enough for a second laser pulse to come along. That pulse heats up the adsorbed copper and the vapor in the original bubble, enough to melt a tiny bit of the glass. As the process is repeated, small features are slowly etched into the underside of the glass. [Zachary] demonstrates all this in the video, as well as what can go wrong when the settings are a bit off. There’s also some great high-speed footage of the process that’s worth the price of admission alone.

We doubt this process will be a mainstream method anytime soon, not least because it requires a 50-Watt Nd:YAG fiber laser. But it’s an interesting process that reminds us of [Zachary]’s other laser explorations, like using a laser and Kapton to make graphene supercapacitors.

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We Would Not Want To Be Stormtroopers Right Now

Humanity is another step closer to a fantasy-accurate lightsaber thanks to Hackaday alumnus [James Hobson] at Hacksmith. Their proto-saber cuts through (cosplay) stormtrooper armor, (foam) walls, and a (legit!) 1/4″ (6.35mm) steel plate. For so many reasons, we want to focus on the blade and handle. (Video, embedded below.)

The blade is a plasma stream designed for glassworking and burns a propane/oxygen mix with almost no residue, but the “blade” stays in a tight cylinder shape. With a custom PCB hosting a mixing controller, the blade extends and retracts like in the movies. The handle is not a technical marvel; it is an artistic wonder and if you want to see some machining eye-candy, check out the first video after the break. The second video demonstrates just how much damage you can do with a 4000° Fahrenheit tube of portable plasma.

You won’t be dueling anyone just yet, since there is no magnetic field shaping the blade like the ones [Lucas] envisioned. Unfortunately, you can’t block anything more substantial than a balloon sword since solid material will pass right through it, but it will suffer a mighty burn in the process. Lightsabers are a fantasy weapon, but the collective passion of nerds have made it as real as ever, and the Guinness folks give credibility to this build.

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Hackaday Links: November 22, 2020

Remember DSRC? If the initialism doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry — Dedicated Short-Range Communications, a radio service intended to let cars in traffic talk to each other, never really caught on. Back in 1999, when the Federal Communications Commission set aside 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9-GHz band, it probably seemed like a good idea — after all, the flying cars of the future would surely need a way to communicate with each other. Only about 15,000 vehicles in the US have DSRC, and so the FCC decided to snatch back the whole 75-MHz slice and reallocate it. The lower 45 MHz will be tacked onto the existing unlicensed 5.8-GHz band where WiFi now lives, providing interesting opportunities in wireless networking. Fans of chatty cars need not fret, though — the upper 30 MHz block is being reallocated to a different Intelligent Transportation System Service called C-V2X, for Cellular Vehicle to Everything, which by its name alone is far cooler and therefore more likely to succeed.

NASA keeps dropping cool teasers of the Mars 2020 mission as the package containing the Perseverance rover hurtles across space on its way to a February rendezvous with the Red Planet. The latest: you can listen to the faint sounds the rover is making as it gets ready for its date with destiny. While we’ve heard sounds from Mars before — the InSight lander used its seismometer to record the Martian windPerseverance is the first Mars rover equipped with actual microphones. It’s pretty neat to hear the faint whirring of the rover’s thermal management system pump doing its thing in interplanetary space, and even cooler to think that we’ll soon hear what it sounds like to land on Mars.

Speaking of space, back at the beginning of 2020 — you know, a couple of million years ago — we kicked off the Hack Chat series by talking with Alberto Caballero about his “Habitable Exoplanets” project, a crowd-sourced search for “Earth 2.0”. We found it fascinating that amateur astronomers using off-the-shelf gear could detect the subtle signs of planets orbiting stars half a galaxy away. We’ve kept in touch with Alberto since then, and he recently tipped us off to his new SETI Project. Following the citizen-science model of the Habitable Exoplanets project, Alberto is looking to recruit amateur radio astronomers willing to turn their antennas in the direction of stars similar to the Sun, where it just might be possible for intelligent life to have formed. Check out the PDF summary of the project which includes the modest technical requirements for getting in on the SETI action.

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Into The Plasmaverse Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, September 23 at noon Pacific for the Into the Plasmaverse Hack Chat with Jay Bowles!

Most kids catch on to the fact that matter can exist in three states — solid, liquid, and gas — pretty early in life, usually after playing in the snow a few times. The ice and snowflakes, the wet socks, and the fog of water vapor in breath condensing back into water droplets all provide a quick and lasting lesson in not only the states of matter but the transitions between them. So it usually comes as some surprise later when they learn of another and perhaps more interesting state: plasma.

For the young scientist, plasma is not quite so easy to come by as the other phases of matter, coming about as it does from things they’re usually not allowed to muck with. High voltage discharges, strong electromagnetic fields, or simply a lot of heat can strip away electrons from a gas and make the ionized soup that we call plasma. But once they catch the bug, few things can compare to the dancing, frenetic energy of a good plasma discharge.

Jay Bowles picked up the plasma habit quite a while back and built his YouTube channel around it. Tesla coils, Van de Graaff generators, coils and capacitors of all types — whatever it takes to make a spark, Jay has probably made and used it to make the fourth state of matter. He’ll join us on the Hack Chat to talk about all the fun things to do with plasma, high-voltage discharge, and whatever else sparks his interest.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, September 23 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones baffle you as much as us, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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A Miniature Power Supply For High Voltage Hacking

If you’re looking to experiment with plasma, you’re going to need a high voltage power supply. Usually that means something big, complex, and (naturally) expensive. But it doesn’t have to be. As [Jay Bowles] demonstrates in his latest Plasma Channel video, you can put together a low-cost power supply capable of producing up to 20,000 volts that fits in the palm of your hand. Though you should probably just put the thing down on a table when in use…

Finding the feedback coil with a multimeter.

The secret to the build is the flyback transformer. A household staple during the era of CRT televisions, these devices can still be readily found online or even salvaged from a broken TV. We’d recommend searching eBay for new old stock (NOS) transformers rather than risk getting blown through a wall while poking around in an old TV you found on the side of the road, but really it all depends on your experience level with this sort of thing.

In any event, once you have the flyback transformer in hand, the rest of the build is very simple. [Jay] demonstrates how you can determine the pinout for your transformer even if you can’t find a datasheet for it, and then proceeds to assemble the handful of ancillary parts necessary to drive it. Housed on a scrap of perfboard and mounted to a piece of plastic to keep stray objects away from the sparky bits underneath, this little power supply would be a reliable workhorse for anyone looking to start experimenting with high voltage. Perhaps an ionic lifter is in your future?

Readers with a photographic memory may recall that [Jay] used this same diminutive power supply in his recently completed water-based Marx generator.

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