It’s often said that the best science experiments are the ones which do not require any special devices or ingredients, which makes the use of what naturally comes out of one’s body clearly one of the winners. It’s also the beginning of yet another [Hyperspace Pirate] chemistry video that’s both fascinating and unforgettable — this time introducing a considerable collection of urine, and the many uses of the urea in it, including its use for refrigeration.
As icky as this may sound, it doesn’t even rank in the top ten of quaint things people have historically done with urine, so extracting urea from it is rather benign. This is performed by adding sodium hydroxide to the starting component after heating, which creates gaseous ammonia (NH3) which was then condensed into its liquid (dissolved) form. In order to create the target compound – being ammonium nitrate – nitric acid (HNO3) had to be created first.
For this the older, but cheaper and easier Birkeland-Eyde process was used. This uses high-voltage electrical arcs to break down the nitrogen and oxygen in the air and cause the formation of nitric oxide (NO), that subsequently reacts with atmospheric oxygen to form nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Running the NO2 through water then creates the desired HNO3, which can be combined with the ammonia solution to create ammonium nitrate. The resulting solution was then evaporated into solid ammonium nitrate, to use it in an aluminium cooling cylinder, with freshly added water.
This is the simplest way to use the cooling effect of such solutions (pictured), but the benefit of ammonium nitrate over the original urea seems minimal. The low efficiency of this cooling approach means that the next use of urine will involve a much more efficient vapor-absorption cycle, which we’re sure everyone is squeezing their legs together for in anticipation.
Every time we check in with [Hyperspace Pirate] he’s trying to make things cold. Really cold. His recent two-part video shows a propane vapor compression system that can go down to -37° C as well as a two-stage system using homemade ethylene that can get to -83° C. He’s trying to get to -100°, so he’s close, and we have no doubt he’ll get there.
The video explains that using two different refrigerants makes the design more practical. At the low temperatures involved, you have to deal with compressor oil freezing. There is a lot of theory required to design an efficient cooler and a lot of know-how required to make gas-tight connections with all the different materials involved.
Using propane in both stages did provide a little additional cooling. But using ethylene in the second stage didn’t work as expected. There were two issues to work through. Part of it was the average temperature of the system, and also, the homemade ethylene needed purification. The ethylene purification setup was almost as complex as the main system and also reminded us, for some reason, of the movie Darkstar. It didn’t work as well as he wanted, which means we have to wait for part two to see it all actually working.
Widespread use of refrigerators is a hallmark of modern society, allowing people to store food and enjoy ice and cold beverages. However, a typical refrigerator uses gasses that are not always good for the environment. Now the Berkeley National Lab says they can change that using ioncaloric cooling, a new technique that uses salt as a refrigerant.
The new technique involves using ions to drive a solid-to-liquid phase change which is endothermic. Unlike some similar proposals, the resulting liquid material would be easy to pump through a heat exchanger. In simple terms, it is the same process as salting a road to change the melting point of ice. In this case, an iodine-sodium salt and an organic solvent combine. Passing current through the material moves ions which changes the material’s melting point. When it melts, it absorbs heat. When it resolidifies, it releases heat.
Every week, the Hackaday tip line is bombarded with offers from manufacturers who want to send us their latest and greatest device to review. The vast majority of these are ignored, simply because they don’t make sense for the sort of content we run here. For example, there’s a company out there that seems Hell-bent on sending us a folding electronic guitar for some reason.
At first, that’s what happened when CoolingStyle recently reached out to us about their Cooler Max. The email claimed it was the “World’s First AC Cooler System For Gaming Desktop”, which featured a “powerful compressor which can bring great cooling performance”, and was capable of automatically bringing your computer’s temperature down to as low as 10℃ (50°F). The single promotional shot in the email showed a rather chunky box hooked up to a gaming rig with a pair of flexible hoses, but no technical information was provided. We passed the email around the (virtual) water cooler a bit, and the consensus was that the fancy box probably contained little more than a pair of Peltier cooling modules and some RGB LEDs.
The story very nearly ended there, but there was something about the email that I couldn’t shake. If it was just using Peltier modules, then why was the box so large? What about that “powerful compressor” they mentioned? Could they be playing some cute word games, and were actually talking about a centrifugal fan? Maybe…
It bothered me enough that after a few days I got back to CoolingStyle and said we’d accept a unit to look at. I figured no matter what ended up being inside the box, it would make for an interesting story. Plus it would give me an excuse to put together another entry for my Teardowns column, a once regular feature which sadly has been neglected since I took on the title of Managing Editor.
There was only one problem…I’m no PC gamer. Once in a while I’ll boot up Kerbal Space Program, but even then, my rockets are getting rendered on integrated video. I don’t even know anyone with a gaming computer powerful enough to bolt an air conditioner to the side of the thing. But I’ve got plenty of experience pulling weird stuff apart to figure out how it works, so let’s start with that.
One of the big stories last week was the announcement of results from clinical trials that suggest a new COVID-19 vaccine developed through the joint effort of the American and German companies Pfizer and BioNTech is strongly effective in providing immunity from the virus. In the midst of what is for many countries the second spike of the global pandemic this news has been received with elation as well as becoming the subject of much political manoeuvring.
While we currently have two vaccine candidates with very positive testing results, one of the most interesting things for us is the need to keep doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine extremely cold until they are administered. Let’s dig into details of the refrigeration problem at hand.
When you’re a kid, one of the surest signs of summer is hearing the happy sound of the ice cream truck crawling through the neighborhood. You don’t worry about how that magical truck is keeping the ice cream cold, only that it rolls down your street, and that the stars align and your parents give you money for a giant ice cream-cookie sandwich with the edge rolled in tiny chocolate chips.
In the early days of mobile refrigeration, ice cream trucks and other food delivery vehicles relied first on ice, and then dry ice to keep perishables cold. Someone eventually invented an electric cooling system, but those had to be recharged periodically at power stations. There was also a short-lived mechanical system, but it was highly susceptible to road vibrations.
Until Frederick McKinley Jones came along, mobile refrigeration was fledgling, and sources of perishable food were extremely localized and limited. In the early 1940s, Frederick patented the first practical automated refrigeration system for trucks, and it revolutionized the shipping and storage of food and medicine.
Many people with Multiple Sclerosis have sensitivity to heat. When the core body temperature of an MS sufferer rises, symptoms get worse, leading to fatigue, weakness, pain, and numbness. For his entry to the Hackaday Prize, [extremerockets] is finding a solution. He’s developing a wearable, personal cooling device that keeps the wearer at a comfortable temperature.
The device is based on a wearable shirt outfitted with small tubes filled with a cooling gel. This setup is extremely similar to the inner garments worn by astronauts on spacewalks, and is the smallest and most efficient way to keep a person’s core body temperature down.
Unlike a lot of projects dealing with heating and cooling, [extremerockets] isn’t working with Peltiers or thermoelectric modules; they’re terribly inefficient and not the right engineering choice for something that’s going to be battery-powered. Instead, [extremerockets] is building a miniature refrigeration unit, complete with a real refrigeration cycle. There are compressors, valves, and heat exchanges in this build, demonstrating that [extremerockets] has at least some idea what he’s doing. It’s a great project, and one we can’t wait to see a working prototype of.