Turning Heat Into Electricity

You don’t really create energy, you convert it from one form to another. For example, many ways that we generate electricity use heat from burning or nuclear decay to generate steam which turns a generator. Thermocouples generate electricity directly from heat, but generally not very much. Still, some nuclear batteries directly convert heat to electricity, they just aren’t very efficient. Now researchers have developed a way of preparing a material that is better at doing the conversion: tin selenide.

Tin selenide is known to have good performance converting heat into electricity when in its crystal form. However, practical applications are more likely to use polycrystalline forms, which are known to have reduced conversion performance.

The material works well because it is not very thermally conductive and it has a favorable band structure that allows multiple bands to participate in charge transport. However, in polycrystal configurations, the results are not as good due to higher thermal conductivity. Yet crystalline tin selenide is difficult to manufacture and not very robust in real-world use.

The team worked out that the polycrystal material’s thermal properties were due to tin oxide films on the surface. Using a particular method of construction, you can remove the tin oxide and improve performance even better than the crystal version of tin selenide.

Creating this material might be beyond your garage lab, though. You need a fused silica oven that can reach a pretty tight vacuum. Although you might be able to swing it. Otherwise, you might stick with more conventional methods.

Practical Sensors: The Many Ways We Measure Heat Electronically

Measuring temperature turns out to be a fundamental function for a huge number of devices. You furnace’s programmable thermostat and digital clocks are obvious examples. If you just needed to know if a certain temperature is exceeded, you could use a bimetalic coil and a microswitch (or a mercury switch as was the method with old thermostats). But these days we want precision over a range of readings, so there are thermocouples that generate a small voltage, RTDs that change resistance with temperature, thermistors that also change resistance with temperature, infrared sensors, and vibrating wire sensors. The bandgap voltage of a semiconductor junction varies with temperature and that’s predictable and measurable, too. There are probably other methods too, some of which are probably pretty creative.

Bimetalic coil by [Hustvede], CC-BY-SA 3.0.
You can often think of creative ways to do any measurement. There’s an old joke about the smart-alec student in physics class. The question was how do you find the height of a building using a barometer. One answer was to drop the barometer from the top of the building and time how long it takes to hit the ground. Another answer — doubtlessly an engineering student — wanted to find the building engineer and offer to give them the barometer in exchange for the height of the building. By the same token, you could find the temperature by monitoring a standard thermometer with a camera or even a level sensor which is a topic for another post.

The point is, there are plenty of ways to measure anything, but in every case, you are converting what you want to know (temperature) into something you know how to measure like voltage, current, or physical position. Let’s take a look at how some of the most interesting temperature sensors accomplish this.

Continue reading “Practical Sensors: The Many Ways We Measure Heat Electronically”

Turning A Waffle Iron Into A Reflow Station

There are a ton of ways to go about building your own reflow oven. Most of these builds start with, well, an oven — usually a toaster oven — with a small but significant minority choosing to modify a hotplate. But this might be the first time we’ve seen a waffle iron turned into a reflow oven.

Of course, what [Vincent Deconinck] came up with is not an oven per se. But his “RefloWaffle” certainly gets the job done. It started with an old waffle maker and a few experiments to see just how much modification it would take to create the various thermal reflow profiles. As it turned out, the original cooking surfaces had too much thermal inertia, so [Vincent] replaced them with plain copper sheets. That made for quicker temperature transitions, plus created some space between the upper and lower heating elements for the SMD board.

As for control, [Vincent] originally used an Arduino with a relay and a thermocouple, but he eventually built a version 2.0 that used a hacked Sonoff as both controller and switch. Adding the thermocouple driver board inside the Sonoff case took a little finagling, but he managed to get everything safely tucked inside. A web interface runs on the Sonoff and controls the reflow process.

We think this is a great build, one that will no doubt see us trolling the thrift stores for cheap waffle irons to convert. We’ve seen some amazing toaster oven reflows, of course, but something about the simplicity and portability of RefloWaffle just works for us.

Peltier Device Experiments

Once an exotic component, solid state heat pumps or Peltier devices are now pretty mainstream. The idea is simple: put electricity through a Peltier device and one side gets hot while the other side gets cold. [DroneBot] recently posted a video showing how these cool — really cool — devices work. You can see the video, below.

Many things in physics are reversible, and the Peltier is no exception. The device is actually a form of thermocouple, and in a thermocouple a temperature difference causes a voltage difference. This is known as the Seebeck effect as opposed to the Peltier effect in which current flowing between voltage differences causes a temperature difference. It was known for many years, but wasn’t very practical until modern semiconductor materials arrived.

Continue reading “Peltier Device Experiments”

When Engineering, Fine Art, And ASMR Collide

The success that [Julian Baumgartner] has found on YouTube is a perfect example of all that’s weird and wonderful about the platform. His videos, which show in utterly engrossing detail the painstaking work that goes into restoring and conserving pieces of fine art, have been boosted in popularity by YouTube’s Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) subculture thanks to his soft spoken narration. But his latest video came as something of a surprise to lovers of oil paintings and “tingles” alike, as it revealed that he’s also more than capable of scratch building his own equipment.

Anyone who’s been following his incredible restorations will be familiar with his heated suction table, which is used to treat various maladies a canvas may be suffering from. For example, by holding it at a sufficiently high temperature for days on end, moisture can be driven out as the piece is simultaneously smoothed and flattened by the force of the vacuum. But as [Julian] explains in the video after the break, the heated suction table he’s been using up to this point had been built years ago by his late father and was starting to show its age. After a recent failure had left him temporarily without this important tool, he decided to design and build his own fault-tolerant replacement.

The table itself is built with a material well known to the readers of Hackaday: aluminum extrusion. As [Julian] constructs the twelve legged behemoth, he extols the many virtues of working with 4040 extrusion compared to something like wood. He then moves on to plotting out and creating the control panel for the table with the sort of zeal and attention to detail that you’d expect from a literal artist. With the skeleton of the panel complete, he then begins wiring everything up.

Underneath the table’s 10 foot long surface of 6061 aluminum are 6 silicone heat pads, each rated for 1,500 watts. These are arranged into three separate “zones” for redundancy, each powered by a Crydom CKRD2420 solid state relay connected to a Autonics TC4M-14R temperature controller. Each zone also gets its own thermocouple, which [Julian] carefully bonds to the aluminum bed with thermally conductive epoxy. Finally, a Gast 0523-V4-G588NDX vacuum pump is modified so it can be activated with the flick of a switch on the control panel.

What we like most about this project is that it’s more than just a piece of equipment that [Julian] will use in his videos. He’s also released the wiring diagram and Bill of Materials for the table on his website, which combined with the comprehensive build video, means this table can be replicated by other conservators. Whether it’s restoring the fine details on Matchbox cars or recreating woodworking tools from the 18th century, we’re always excited to see people put their heart into something they’re truly passionate about.

Continue reading “When Engineering, Fine Art, And ASMR Collide”

Open Source Smart Smoker Brings The Heat (Slowly)

Conceptually, cooking on a grill is simple enough: just crank up the flames and leave the food on long enough for it to cook through, but not so long that it turns into an inedible ember. But when smoking, the goal is actually to prevent flames entirely; the food is cooked by the circulation of hot gasses generated by smoldering wood. If you want a well-cooked and flavorful meal, you’ll need the patience and dedication to manually keep the fuel and air balanced inside the smoker for hours on end.

Or in the case of the Smokey Mc Smokerson, you just let the electronics handle all the hard stuff while you go watch TV. Powered by the Raspberry Pi Zero and a custom control board, this open source smoker offers high-end capabilities on a DIY budget. Granted you’ll still need to add the fuel of your choice the old fashioned way, but with automatic air flow control and temperature monitoring, it greatly reduces the amount of fiddly work required to get that perfect smoke.

[HackersHub] has been working on Smokey Mc Smokerson for a few months now, and are getting very close to building the first complete prototype. The initial version of the software is complete, and the classy black PCBs have recently arrived. Some simulations have been performed to get an idea of how the smoke will circulate inside of the smoker itself, built from a 55 gallon drum, but technically the controller is a stand-alone device. If you’re willing to makes the tweaks necessary, the controller could certainly be retrofitted to  commercially available smoker instead.

Ultimately, this project boils down to tossing a bunch of temperature sensors at the problem. The software developed by [HackersHub] takes the data collected by the five MAX6675 thermocouples and uses it to determine when to inject more air into the chamber using a PWM-controlled fan at the bottom of the smoker. As an added bonus, all those temperature sensors give the user plenty of pretty data points to look at in the companion smartphone application.

We’ve actually seen a fair number of technologically-augmented grills over the years. From this automotive-inspired “turbocharged” beast to a robotic steak flipper built out of PVC pipes, we can confidently say that not all hackers are living on a diet of microwaved ramen.

Perfect Cheese Every Time With This Temperature Controller

Anyone who is from a background in which cheesemaking is a feature will tell you that it is an exact science in which small differences in parameters can make a huge difference in the resulting cheese, to the extent that entire batches can be rendered inedible. In particular the temperature at which the milk is held can be crucial to the production of individual styles of cheese. A friend of [William Dudley]’s had this problem, as a dairy farmer and artisinal cheesemaker they had to carefully control their vat with a set of profiles depending upon the recipe in use. This was achieved using an Arduino Mega 2650 and a thermocouple to control the heat source for the hot water in the outer wall of the vat.

A cheap K-type thermocouple amplifier proved unsatisfactory, so a Sparkfun item was substituted. A relay, Ethernet adaptor, and LCD display provided power control, access to a web interface, and user feedback respectively. Four buttons to select programs were added, and the whole was neatly boxed up to survive the dairy and put to work. In tests with a saucepan it was configured as a PID controller, but the real vat proved to have a much greater thermal inertia so a simpler bang-bang home thermostat style approach was used. Temperatures are logged in an eeprom for later retrieval via the web interface.

We don’t see the cheeses produced, but we’re sure they must be worth the effort. Blessed may be the cheesemakers, but doubly blessed are they who have a little help from an Arduino.