Practical Plasma for Thin-Film Deposition

[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.

Will [Nixie] be using this for a DIY fab lab? Will it be used to make homebrew LEDs? The world waits to hear.

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[Ben Krasnow] Tests Novel Plasma

When [Ben Krasnow] sees an interesting phenomenon he pursues it with a true scientist’s mentality, though it doesn’t hurt that he also has the skills and the workshop. This time he’s produced a glowing plasma by impacting fused quartz and other materials with a high-speed water jet.

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.

How a waterjet plasma works
How a waterjet plasma works

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.

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US Military Developing Laser Plasma Speakers

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.

[Thanks to Kenny for the tip]

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Semi-Automatic Rail Gun is a Laptop Killer

It’s huge, it’s unwieldy, and it takes 45 seconds to shoot all three rounds in its magazine. But it’s a legitimate semi-automatic railgun, and it’s pretty awesome.

Yes, it has its limits, but every new technology does, especially totally home-brew builds like this. The aptly named [NSA_listbot] has been putting a lot of work into his railgun, and this is but the most recent product of an iterative design cycle.

The principle is similar to other railguns we’ve featured before, which accelerate projectiles using rapidly pulsed electromagnets. The features list in the video below reads like a spec for a top-secret military project: field-augmented circular bore, 4.5kJ capacitor bank, and a custom Arduino Nano that’s hardened against the huge electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated by the coils. But the interesting bits are in the mechanical design, which had to depart from standard firearms designs to handle the caseless 6 mm projectiles. The resulting receiver and magazines are entirely 3D printed. Although it packs a wallop, its cyclic rate of fire is painfully slow. We expect that’ll improve as battery and capacitor technology catches up, though.

Want to check out some more railgun builds? We’ve got them in spades — from one with $50,000 worth of caps to a wrist-mounted web-slinger.

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Propane-Powered Plasma Rifle

It may not be a “phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range,” and it doesn’t even use plasma in the strict definition, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless. It’s a propane-powered bottle-launching rifle, and it looks like a lot of fun.

[NighthawkInLight] sure likes things that go pop, like his watermelon-wasting air-powered cannon and cheesy-poof pop gun. This one has a little more oomph to it, powered as it is by a propane torch. The principle is simple: fill a soda bottle with propane, ignite the gas, fun ensues. The details are a little more subtle, though, and allowances need to be made to keep back pressure from preventing the projectile from filling with fuel. [NighthawkInLight] overcomes this with some clever machining of the barrel. The final production version in the video below is needlessly but delightfully complex, with a wooden stock and a coil of clear vinyl tubing helical plasma accumulator before the barrel; the last bit is just for show, and we have to admit that it looks pretty good.

Unless you count the pro tip on using CPVC pipe to make custom fittings, this one is nothing but fun. But we don’t have a problem with that.

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Unlikely Cascade of Failures Leads to Microwave’s Demise

Surely a blown light bulb can’t kill a microwave oven, right? You might not expect it to, but that was indeed the root cause of a problem that [mikeselecticstuff] recently investigated; the cascade of failures is instructive to say the least.

While the microwave that made its way to [mike]’s bench wasn’t exactly engineered to fail, it surely was not designed to succeed. We won’t spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say that his hopes for a quick repair after the owner reported a bang before it died were dashed by an arc across the interior light bulb that put a pulse of mains voltage in places it didn’t belong. That the cascade of failures killed the appliance is a testament to how designing to a price point limits how thoroughly devices can be tested before production runs in the millions are stuffed into containers for trips to overseas markets.

Even though [mike] made his best effort to adhere to the Repair Manifesto, the end result was a scrapped microwave. It wasn’t a total loss given the interesting parts inside, but a disappointment nonetheless unless it forces us to keep in mind edge-case failure modes in our designs.

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Custom Workstation Makes Plasma Cutting a Breeze

A plasma cutter is probably top of every metalworker’s short list of dream tools. From freehand curves to long straight cuts, nothing beats a plasma cutter for getting the creative juices flowing. Unfortunately, there’s also the jet of superheated metal blasting through the workpiece to deal with, which is the reason behind this shop-built plasma cutting workstation.

[Regalzack] looks like he had a couple of design goals in mind for his table. A solid work surface isn’t a great idea for plasma cutting, so he designed the top as a grid of replaceable steel slats. Underneath is a hopper to collect the slag, both for neatness and for fire safety. The table top and hopper live on a custom-built wheeled steel frame, and the lower shelf provides plenty of room for his Lincoln 375 plasma rig. With hooks for cables and a sturdy ground clamp tab, the whole thing is a nicely self-contained workstation. The video below shows the build and some of the fabrication techniques [Regalzack] used; we were especially taken by the clever way he cut the slots for the table slats.

Plasma is versatile stuff – you can use it to make music, cook a burger, or decorate wood. And it’s not too shabby for notching metal tubing either.

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