Friday Hack Chat: Open Hardware For Science

Scientific equipment is expensive. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up a lab. Simply the cost of machines, like data acquisition units or even a simple load cell, can cost hundreds of dollars. This makes research cost prohibitive, and that’s the case even if you do spend a dozen hours a week writing grant proposals. Citizen science is right out, because the cost of the tools to do science is so high.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking about Open Hardware for science. This is the chat that’s all about Open Source equipment, hardware modular electronics, and Open designs to make the tools that make science.

Our guest for this week’s Hack Chat is [Dr. Alexxai Kravitz]. He has a PhD in Neuroscience from UPenn and completed a postdoc at the Gladstone Institutes in San Fransisco. [Lex]’s research focuses on understanding the reward circuitry in the brain, and his publications use a variety of experiments to examine this, including behavioral testing, in vivo electrophysiology, and optogenetics.

For this Hack Chat, we’re going to about how Open Source has made more science possible. Of note, we’ll be discussing:

  • What Open Source science equipment is being used today
  • The initiatives behind Open Source Hardware for science applications
  • Scientific application that could benefit from Open Hardware

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Hack Chat Event Page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.join-hack-chat

Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hack Chat group messaging. This week is just like any other, and we’ll be gathering ’round our video terminals at noon, Pacific, on Friday, May 11th.  Here’s a clock counting down the time until the Hack Chat starts.

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 Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Incandescent Luminescence Of Semiconductor Junctions Characterised In The Lab

The semiconductor devices were put to the test under different atmospheres in this chamber.
The semiconductor devices were put to the test under different atmospheres in this chamber.

One of the humbling things about writing for Hackaday comes when we encounter our readership and learn the breadth of our community and the huge variety of skills and professions you represent. Among your number are a significant representation among scientists, and as a result we often receive fascinating previews of and insights into their work. Sometimes they deserve a little bit more attention than one of our normal short daily pieces, and such a moment has come our way this week.

We’ve been fortunate enough to have an early look at a paper which makes detailed observations of a hitherto barely characterised property of semiconductor junctions that might have some interest for Hackaday readers in their work. In their paper, [Mellie], [Bacon] et al at Fulchester University in northeast England take a look at incandescent luminescence, a fleeting and curious effect exhibited by all semiconductor junctions in which they emit short-duration high-intensity infra-red and visible light with an extremely fast rise time when presented with high levels of current. This is a property which has been rarely exploited in commercial devices due to the large current densities required to reproduce it.

Incandescent Luminescence Explained

If you’ve never heard of incandescent luminescence before then you’re in good company, for neither had we until it was explained to us. It appears that there are a set of higher energy state conductivity bands in a semiconductor junction that can only be reached once the current passing through it breaches a threshold governed by the available quantum plasma dipole moment of the semiconductor material in question. At this point the junction assumes a plasma condition resulting in the abrupt emission of infra-red and visible radiation, the incandescent luminescence phase has been triggered.

A near-infra-red spectrum of incandescent luminescence in a halogen-doped silicon semiconductor junction.
A near-infra-red spectrum of incandescent luminescence in a silicon semiconductor junction.

Though it has been known to science since first being observed in the early 20th century by the earliest experimenters in the field of semiconductor junctions, the transitory nature of the phenomenon has traditionally been a barrier to its proper examination. The British team took a selection of commercial semiconductor devices very similar to the types that might be used by Hackaday readers, placed them in a chamber, and used an array of photoelectric sensors coupled with ionising detectors using americium-241 alpha radiation sources to measure their emissions.

The resulting data was then harvested for processing through a stack of custom high-speed ADC cards. Current densities from as low as a few milliamps to hundreds of amps were tested across forward-biased PN diode junctions using a computer-controlled DC power supply, resulting in a variety of spectra and showing the resulting thermionic photon emission at higher currents to have a preponderance in the infra-red region.

Incandescent luminescence in action, through an infra-red pyrometer.
Incandescent luminescence in action, through an infra-red pyrometer.

A series of experiments were conducted to investigate a related effect first described by those early scientists in the field: that the atmosphere in which the semiconductor junction sits has a significant effect on the way it exhibits incandescent luminescence. Bathing it in gaseous CO₂ or nitrogen was found to reduce the phenomenon by as much as 95%, while immersing it in liquid nitrogen resulted in it becoming completely unobservable. Oxygen-rich atmospheres by comparison served to enhance the luminescence observed, to the point that in one of pure oxygen it reached an efficiency level of 100%.

The high conversion efficiencies and rapid onset of incandescent luminescence once it has been triggered compares favourably to those of existing devices such as LEDs or wire-wound resistors used where either infra-red or visible light is required. The researchers expect the effect to be exploited in such product families as photographic flash generators, electronic igniters, and other short-duration high-intensity applications. Given their obvious advantages, we’d expect their effects on those particular markets to be nothing short of incendiary.

Thanks Ellie D. Martin-Eberhardt for some invaluable inspiration and technical help with covering this story.

Near-IR spectrum: Deglr6328 [CC-BY-SA-3.0].

Test chamber: David Monniaux [CC-BY-SA-3.0].

Infra-red image: National Institute of Standards and Technology [Public domain].

Ancient Insect Scales Analyzed With Help Of Nose Hair

Scientists working to advance the frontier of knowledge frequently also need to invent their tools along the way. Sometimes these are interesting little hacks to get a job done. Recently some researchers found ancestors of moths and butterflies older than any previously known by analyzing tiny scales found alongside ancient pollen. They needed a tool to manipulate these scales: separating them from surrounding debris, transferring them to microscope slides. The special tool was a needle tipped with a single human nostril hair.

As ancient insects were the published paper‘s focus, their use of nose hair tipped needle was only given a brief mention in the “Materials and Methods” section. Interviews by press quoted researchers’ claim that nose hair has the right mechanical properties for the job, without further details. Not even a picture of the tool itself. What properties of insect scales made them a good match with the properties of nose hair? Was there a comprehensive evaluation of multiple types of hair for the task? Would we regret asking these questions?

Novel approaches to fine-tipped tools would be interesting to examine under other contexts, like the tweezers we use to build surface-mount electronics. As SMD parts continue to shrink in size, will we reach a point where hair-tipped tools are the best DIY alternative to an expensive pick-and-place machine? It would be another creative approach to deal with the challenges of hand-built SMD. From simple but effective mechanical helpers, to handy 3D printed tools, to building hybrid Manual + CNC pick-and-place more affordable than their fully automated counterparts.

[via Washington Post]

Fill Your Hot Tub With Sand. For Science!

Here at Hackaday, we can understand if you don’t like sand. It’s coarse, rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere. With that said, [Mark Rober] discovered a great way to have fun with sand right in your own back garden.

We’ll preface this by stating that this isn’t the easiest hack to pull off on a lazy Saturday afternoon. You need a spare hot tub, plenty of pipe, and a seriously big air supply. But if you can pull it all together, the payoff is fantastic.

What [Mark] has achieved is turning a regular hot tub into a fluidized bed. In simple terms, this is where a solid particulate material (like sand) is made to act more like a fluid by passing pressurized fluid through the material. Through a carefully built series of drilled copper pipes, [Mark] manages to turn the hot tub into a fluidized bed, much to the enjoyment of his young nephews.

While it’s not the easiest hack to copy at home, [Mark] drives home the science of both the fluidized bed and why certain objects float or sink in the sand. It’s something that can also be easily tackled at a smaller scale, if you’re looking for something more achievable for the average maker.

For more sand science, how about using it to hold up your car?

[Thanks to Keith for the tip!]

Hackaday Prize Entry: Microfluidics Control System

Microfluidics is the fine art of moving tiny amounts of liquid around and is increasingly used in fields such as biology and chemistry. By miniaturizing experiments, it’s possible to run many experiments in parallel and have tighter control over experimental conditions. Unfortunately, the hardware to run these microfluidic experiments is expensive.

[Craig]’s 2017 Hackaday Prize entry involves creating a microfluidics control system for use by researchers and students. This device allows for miniaturized experiments to be run. This allows more projects to be run in parallel and far more cheaply, as they don’t use as many resources like reagents.

[Craig]’s rig consists of an ESP32, a 40-channel IO expander, 3 pressure regulators tuned to different pressures, and around 2 dozen solenoid valves mounted to manifolds. Solutions are moved around with a combination of two pumps, with one providing positive pressure and one serving as a vacuum pump.

Far cheaper than professional microfluidics systems, [Craig]’s project aims to assist biohackers and underfunded researchers in their pursuits.

Build Your Own Wave Tank

Wave tanks are cool, but it’s likely you don’t have one sitting on your coffee table at home. They’re more likely something you’ve seen in a documentary about oil tankers or icebergs. That need no longer be the case – you can build yourself a wave generator at home!

This build comes to use from [TVMiller] who started by creating a small tank out of acrylic sheet. Servo-actuated paddles are then placed in the tank to generate the periodic motion in the water. Two servos are controlled by an Arduino, allowing a variety of simple and more complex waves to be created in the tank. [TVMiller] has graciously provided the code for the project on We’d love to see more detail behind the tank build itself, too – like how the edges were sealed, and how the paddles are hinged.

A wave machine might not be the first thing that comes to mind when doing science at home, but with today’s hardware, it’s remarkable how simple it is to create one. Bonus points if you scale this up to the pool in your backyard – make sure to hit the tip line when you do.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate and encourage women in the fields of science and technology. The day is named after Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, born Byron. (You can see why we just call her Ada Lovelace.) She was a brilliant mathematician, and the writer of what’s probably the first real computer program — it computed the Bernoulli series. At least according Charles Babbage, in correspondence to Michael Faraday, she was an “enchanted math fairy”. Not only a proto-coder, she wrote almost all of the existing documentation about Babbage’s computation engine. She’s a stellar example of a brilliant and unique individual. If you were looking for a superhero to represent women in science and tech, Ada’s a good pick.

In our minds, she gets stiff competition from Marie Curie. Curie did fundamental research on radioactivity, is one of two people with Nobel Prizes in two different sciences, and got to name the two elements that she discovered. 2011 was the Year of Marie Curie in France and Poland. She has her own year in addition to her own unit. Even Spiderman doesn’t have those radioactive super powers!

Don’t Need Another Hero?

But on a day dedicated to getting more women into the technical arts, it’s also a little bit daunting to pick Lovelace or Curie as a symbol. Are you ever going to have something that equals “first computer program” or “two Nobel Prizes” on your résumé? We aren’t. It’s great to have heroes, but maybe we need more than just heroes — we also need mentors.

Continue reading “Happy Ada Lovelace Day!”