Thin Coatings Require An Impressive Collection Of Equipment And Know-How

Let’s be honest — not too many of us have a need to deposit nanometer-thick films onto substrates in a controlled manner. But if you do find yourself in such a situation, you could do worse than following [Jeroen Vleggaar]’s lead as he builds out a physical vapor deposition apparatus to do just that.

Thankfully, [Jeroen] has particular expertise in this area, and is willing to share it. PVD is used to apply an exceedingly thin layer of metal or organic material to a substrate — think lens coatings or mirror silvering, as well as semiconductor manufacturing. The method involves heating the coating material in a vacuum such that it vaporizes and accumulates on a substrate in a controlled fashion. Sounds simple, but the equipment and know-how needed to actually accomplish it are daunting. [Jeroen]’s shopping list included high-current power supplies to heat the coating material, turbomolecular pumps to evacuate the coating chamber, and instruments to monitor the conditions inside the chamber. Most of the chamber itself was homemade, a gutsy move for a novice TIG welder. Highlights from the build are in the video below, which also shows the PVD setup coating a glass disc with a thin layer of silver.

This build is chock full of nice details; we especially liked the technique of monitoring deposition progress by measuring the frequency change of an oscillator connected to a crystal inside the chamber as it accumulates costing material. We’re not sure where [Jeroen] is going with this, but we suspect it has something to do with some hints he dropped while talking about his experiments with optical logic gates. We’re looking forward to seeing if that’s true.

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The Dark Side Of Solar Power

Everybody loves solar power, right? It’s nice, clean, renewable energy that’s available pretty much everywhere the sun shines. If only the panels weren’t so expensive. Even better, solar is now the cheapest form of electricity for companies to build, according to the International Energy Agency. But solar isn’t all apples and sunshine — there’s a dark side you might not know about. Manufacturing solar panels is a dirty process from start to finish. Mining quartz for silicon causes the lung disease silicosis, and the production of solar cells uses a lot of energy, water, and toxic chemicals.

The other issue is that solar cells have a guanteed life expectancy of about 25 years, with average efficiency losses of 0.5% per year. If replacement begins after 25 years, time is running out for all the panels that were installed during the early 2000s boom. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA) projects that by 2050, we’ll be looking at 78 million metric tons of bulky e-waste. The IREA also believe that we’ll be generating six million metric tons of new solar e-waste every year by then, too. Unfortunately, there are hardly any measures in place to recycle solar panels, at least in the US.

How are solar panels made, anyway? And why is it so hard to recycle them? Let’s shed some light on the subject.

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These Lessons Were Learned In Enclosure Design, But Go Far Beyond

[Foaly] has been hard at work making an open-source long range camera remote, and recently shared a deeply thoughtful post about how it is never too early to consider all aspects of design, lest it cost you in the end. It all started with designing an enclosure for a working prototype, and it led to redesigning the PCB from scratch. That took a lot of guts, and we recommend you make some time to click that link and read up on what he shared. You’ll either learn some valuable tips, or just enjoy nodding sagely as he confirms things you already know. It’s win-win.

Note the awkward buttons right next to the antenna connector, for example.

The project in question is Silver, and calling it a camera remote is selling it a bit short. In any case, [Foaly] had a perfectly serviceable set of prototypes and needed a small batch of enclosures. So far so normal, but in the process of designing possible solutions, [Foaly] ran into a sure-fire sign that a project is in trouble: problems cropping up everywhere, and in general everything just seeming harder than it should be. Holding the mounting-hole-free PCB securely never seemed quite right. Buttons were awkward to reach, ill-proportioned, and didn’t feel good to use. The OLED screen’s component was physically centered, but the display was off-center which looked wrong no matter how the lines of the bezel were sculpted. The PCB was a tidy rectangle, but the display ended up a bit small and enclosures always looked bulky by the time everything was accounted for. The best effort is shown here, and it just didn’t satisfy.

[Foaly] says the real problem was that he designed the electronics and did the layout while giving some thought (but not much thought) to their eventual integration into a case. This isn’t necessarily a problem for a one-off, but from a product design perspective it led to so many problems that it was better to start over, this time being mindful of how everything integrates right from the start: the layout, the components, the mechanical bits, the assembly, and the ultimate user experience. The end result is wonderful, and we’re delighted [Foaly] took the time to document his findings.

Enclosure design is a big deal and there are many different ways to go about it. For a more unique spin, be sure to check out our how-to make enclosures from the PCBs themselves. For a primer on more traditional enclosure manufacture and design, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with injection molding.

Alternative Photography Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, October 2 at noon Pacific for the Alternative Photography Hack Chat with Pierre-Loup Martin!

It seems like the physics of silicon long ago replaced the chemistry of silver as the primary means of creating photographs, to the point where few of us even have film cameras anymore, and home darkrooms are a relic of the deep past. Nobody doubts that the ability to snap a quick photo or even to create a work of photographic genius with a tiny device that fits in your pocket is a wonder of the world, but still, digital photographs can lack some of the soul of film photography.

Recapturing the look of old school photography is a passion for a relatively small group of dedicated photographers, who ply their craft with equipment and chemistries that haven’t been in widespread use for a hundred years. The tools of this specialty trade are hard to come by commercially, so practitioners of alternate photographic processes are by definition hackers, making current equipment bend to the old ways. Pierre-Loup is one such artist, working with collodion plateshacked large-format cameras, pinholes camera, and chemicals and processes galore –  anything that lets him capture a unique image. His photographs are eerie, with analog imperfections that Photoshop would have a hard time creating.

Join us as Pierre-Loup takes us on a tour through the world of alternative photography. We’ll look at the different chemistries used in alternative photography, the reasons why anyone would want to try it, and the equipment needed to pull it off. Photography was always a hack, until it wasn’t; Pierre-Loup will show us how he’s trying to put some soul back into it.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, October 2 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, 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 Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Transparent And Flexible Circuits

German researchers have a line on 3D printed circuitry, but with a twist. Using silver nanowires and a polymer, they’ve created flexible and transparent circuits. Nanowires in this context are only 20 nanometers long and only a few nanometers thick. The research hopes to print things like LEDs and solar cells.

Of course, nothing is perfect. The material has a sheet resistance as low as 13Ω/sq and the optical transmission was as high as 90%. That sounds good until you remember the sheet resistance of copper foil on a PCB is about 0.0005Ω.

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A Machinist’s Foray Into Jewelry Making

Machinists are expected to make functional items from stock material, at least hat’s the one-line job description even though it glosses over many important details. [Eclix] wanted a birthday gift for his girlfriend that wasn’t just jewelry, indeed he wanted jewelry made with his own hands. After all, nothing in his skillset prohibits him from making beautiful things. He admits there were mistakes, but in the end, he came up with a recipe for two pairs of earrings, one set with sapphires and one with diamonds.

He set the gems in sterling silver which was machined to have sockets the exact diameter and depth of the stones. The back end of the rods were machined down to form the post for the clutch making each earring a single piece of metal and a single gemstone. Maintaining a single piece also eliminates the need for welding or soldering which is messy according to the pictures.

This type of cross-discipline skill is one of the things that gives Hackaday its variety. In that regard, consider the art store for your hacking needs and don’t forget the humble library.

Print, Rinse, Wear. Nanowire Circuits For Your Microfibre Clothing.

While our bodies are pretty amazing, their dynamic nature makes integrating circuits into our clothing a frustrating process.  Squaring up against this challenge, a team of researchers from North Carolina State University have hit upon a potential boon for wearable electronics: silver nanowires capable of being printed on flexible, stretchy substrates.

It helps that the properties of silver nanowires lend themselves to the needs of wearable circuits — flexible and springy in their own right — but are not without complications. Silver nanowires tend to clog print nozzles during printing, so the research team enlarged the nozzle and suspended the nanowires in a water-soluble solvent, dramatically cutting the chance of clogging. Normally this would have a negative impact on precision, but the team employed electrostatic force to draw the ink to the desired location and maintain print resolution. Once printed, the solvent is rinsed away and the wearable circuit is ready for use.

By controlling print parameters — such as ink viscosity and concentration — the team are able to print on a wide variety of materials. Successful prototypes thus far include a glove with an integrated heating circuit and an electrocardiograph electrode, but otherwise the size of the printer is the only factor limiting the scale of the print. Until this technique becomes more widely available, interested parties might have to put their stock into more homebrew methods.

[Thanks for the tip, Qes!]