Hackaday Links: March 28, 2021

If you thought the global shortage of computer chips couldn’t get any worse, apparently you weren’t counting on 2021 looking back at 2020 and saying, “Hold my beer.” As if an impacted world waterway and fab fires weren’t enough to squeeze supply chains, now we learn that water restrictions could potentially impact chip production in Taiwan. The subtropical island usually counts on three or four typhoons a year to replenish its reservoirs, but 2020 saw no major typhoons in the region. This has plunged Taiwan into its worst drought since the mid-1960s, with water-use restrictions being enacted. These include a 15% reduction of supply to industrial users as well as shutting off the water entirely to non-industrial users for up to two days a week. So far, the restrictions haven’t directly impacted chip and display manufacturers, mostly because their fabs are located outside the drought zone. But for an industry where a single fab can use millions of gallons of water a day, it’s clearly time to start considering what happens if the drought worsens.

Speaking of the confluence of climate and technology, everyone problem remembers the disastrous Texas cold snap from last month, especially those who had to endure the wrath of the unusually brutal conditions in person. One such victim of the storm is Grady, everyone’s favorite YouTube civil engineer, who recently released a very good post-mortem on the engineering causes for the massive blackouts experienced after the cold snap. In the immediate aftermath of the event, we found it difficult to get anything approaching in-depth coverage on its engineering aspects — our coverage excepted, naturally — as so much of what we found was laden with political baggage. Grady does a commendable job of sticking to the facts as he goes over the engineering roots of the disaster and unpacks all the complexity of the infrastructure failures we witnessed. We really enjoyed his insights, and we wish him and all our friends in Texas the best of luck as they recover.

If you’re into the demoscene, chances are pretty good that you already know about the upcoming Revision 2021, the year’s big demoscene party. Like last year’s Revision, this will be a virtual gathering, but it seems like we’re all getting pretty used to that by now. The event is next weekend, so if you’ve got a cool demo, head over and register. Virtual or not, the bar was set pretty high last year, so there should be some interesting demos that come out of this year’s party.

Many of us suffer from the “good enough, move on” mode of project management, leaving our benches littered with breadboarded circuits that got far enough along to bore the hell out of us make a minimally useful contribution to the overall build. That’s why we love it when we get the chance to follow up on a build that has broken from that mode and progressed past the point where it originally caught our attention. A great example is Frank Olsen’s all-wood ribbon microphone. Of course, with magnets and an aluminum foil ribbon element needed, it wasn’t 100% wood, but it still was an interesting build when we first spied it, if a bit incomplete looking. Frank has fixed that in grand style by continuing the wood-construction theme that completes this all-wood replica of the iconic RCA Model 44 microphone. It looks fabulous and sounds fantastic; we can’t help but wonder how many times Frank glued his fingers together with all that CA adhesive, though.

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Wind Turbines And Ice: How They’re Tailored For Specific Climates

Wind turbines are incredible pieces of technology, able to harvest wind energy and deliver it to the power grid without carbon emissions. Their constant development since the first one came online in 1939 mean that the number of megawatts produced per turbine continues to rise as price per megawatt-hour of wind energy continues to fall. Additionally, they can operate in almost any climate to reliably generate energy almost anywhere in the world from Canada to the North Atlantic to parts beyond. While the cold snap that plowed through the American South recently might seem to contradict this fact, in reality the loss of wind power during this weather event is partially a result of tradeoffs made during the design of these specific wind farms (and, of course, the specifics of how Texas operates its power grid, but that’s outside the scope of this article) rather than a failure of the technology itself.

First, building wind turbines on the scale of megawatts isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Purchasing a large turbine from a company like GE, Siemens, or Vestas is a lot like buying a car. A make and model are selected first, and then options are selected for these base models. For example, low but consistent wind speeds demand a larger blade that will rotate at a lower speed whereas areas with higher average wind speeds may be able to get by with smaller and less expensive blades for the same amount of energy production. Another common option for turbines is cold weather packages, which include things like heaters for the control systems, hydraulics, and power electronics, additional insulation in certain areas, and de-icing solutions especially for the turbine blades.

In a location like Texas that rarely sees cold temperatures for very long, it’s understandable that the cold weather packages might be omitted to save money during construction (although some smaller heaters are often included in critical areas to reduce condensation or humidity) but also to save on maintenance as well: every part in a wind turbine has to be maintained. Continuing the car analogy, it’s comparable to someone purchasing a vehicle in a cold climate that didn’t come equipped with air conditioning to save money up front, but also to avoid repair costs when the air conditioning eventually breaks. However, there are other side effects beyond cost to be considered when installing equipment that’s designed to improve a turbine’s operation in cold weather.

Let’s dig into the specifics of how wind turbine equipment is selected for a given wind farm.

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Trouble With The Texas Power Grid As Cold Weather Boosts Demand, Knocks Out Generators

It comes as something of a shock that residents of the Lone Star State are suffering from rolling power blackouts in the face of an unusually severe winter. First off, winter in Texas? Second, isn’t it the summer heat waves that cause the rolling blackouts in that region?

Were you to mention Texas to a European, they’d maybe think of cowboys, oil, the hit TV show Dallas, and if they were European Hackaday readers, probably the semiconductor giant Texas Instruments. The only state of the USA with a secession clause also turns out to to have their own power grid independent of neighboring states.

An accurate and contemporary portrait of a typical Texan, as understood by Europeans. Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain.
An accurate and contemporary portrait of a typical Texan, as understood by Europeans. Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain.

Surely America is a place of such resourcefulness that this would be impossible, we cry as we watch from afar the red squares proliferating across the outage map. It turns out that for once the independent streak that we’re told defines Texas may be its undoing. We’re used to our European countries being tied into the rest of the continental grid, but because the Texan grid stands alone it’s unable to sip power from its neighbours in times of need.

Let’s dive into the mechanics of maintaining an electricity grid, with the unfortunate Texans for the moment standing in as the test subject.

 

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Fidget Spinner Gigantor

Had enough of fidget spinners yet? If you haven’t heard, a toy that consists of a bearing in the center of a multi-lobed flat structure that’s designed to spin around the bearing’s axis with little force has taken the world by storm. Usually, these devices are about 10cm in diameter or less. But, everything is bigger in Texas. So, naturally, students from the University of Texas at Dallas got to work making the largest fidget spinner in the world.

Clocking in at 150 pounds and 45 inches in diameter, this thing is undeniably huge. The structure is made out of what looks to be veneered plywood glued together to make a ~2.5in thick structure to put their bearings in. And, after washing their bearings with soapy water, the students get to work press fitting their 2.2in by 10.5in ball bearings into their painted wooden structure. Their video embedded below is an entertaining watch, it starts with a gag, but moves on the project afterwards.

Haven’t gotten enough fidget spinner news? Fear not, we’ve got you. [MakerStorage] has a fidget spinner designed to teach STEAM. Just in case manually spinning a fidget spinner is above you, we’ve got robots on the job. Want to see something more vibrant? How about POV on a fidget spinner?And if you’ll never get tired of fidget spinners, we’ve got a fidget spinner for that too.

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One Man’s Journey To Build Portable Concrete 3D Printer Produces Its First Tiny House

[Alex Le Roux] want to 3D print houses.  Rather than all the trouble we go through now, the contractor would make a foundation, set-up the 3D printer, feed it concrete, and go to lunch.

It’s by no means the first concrete printer we’ve covered, but the progress he’s made is really interesting. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s claimed to make the first livable structure in the United States. We’re not qualified to verify that statement, maybe a reader can help out, but that’s pretty cool!

The printer is a very scaled gantry system. To avoid having an extremely heavy frame, the eventual design assumes that the concrete will be pumped up to the extruder; for now he is just shoveling it into a funnel as the printer needs it. The extruder appears to be auger based, pushing concrete out of a nozzle. The gantry contains the X and Z. It rides on rails pinned to the ground which function as the Y. This is a good solution that will jive well with most of the skills that construction workers already have.

Having a look inside the controls box we can see that it’s a RAMPS board with the step and direction outputs fed into larger stepper drivers, the laptop is even running pronterface. It seems like he is generating his STLs with Sketch-Up.

[Alex] is working on version three of his printer. He’s also looking for people who would like a small house printed. We assume it’s pretty hard to test the printer after you’ve filled your yard with tiny houses. If you’d like one get in touch with him via the email on his page. His next goal is to print a fully up to code house in Michigan. We’ll certainly be following [Alex]’s tumblr to see what kind of progress he makes next!