Simple Add-On Makes Cheap Plasma Cutter Suitable For CNC Use

Plasma cutters are ridiculously cheap these days, just cruise by the usual online sources or your local Harbor Freight if you’ve got any doubt about that. But “cheap” and “good” don’t always intersect on a Venn diagram, and even when they do, not every plasma cutter is suitable for use on the spanking new CNC table you’re building. But luckily, there’s a mod for that.

As [Jake von Slatt] explains it, there are two kinds of plasma cutters on the market: high-frequency (HF) start and pilot arc start. The basic difference is that HF start cutters, which comprise the majority of cheap cutters on the market, need direct electrical contact with the workpiece to start the cutting action. Pilot arc torches, which are more suitable for CNC cutters, can strike the arc through a separate conductor without the need to contact the workpiece.

While there are homebrew bodges that claim to turn an HF torch into a pilot arc, [Jake]’s approach is a bit more complicated, and necessarily so. His add-on box intercepts the ground clamp — which is actually the positive conductor for plasma cutting — and switches it through a heavy-duty HVAC contactor. The 24 VDC coil of the contactor is controlled by a homebrew current sensor made from a huge toroid ferrite core wrapped with 20 turns of 6 AWG welding wire.

Before winding, the core is split in two and epoxied back together with a small magnetic reed switch bridging the gap. A simple 24 VDC power supply runs the whole thing. When the torch starts, the nozzle is connected to ground through the contactor, but as soon as the arc strikes and starts pulling cutting current through that toroid, the magnetic field closes the reed switch, which opens the contactor via a small DC relay. This removes the connection between the nozzle and ground, leaving the plasma to carry all the cutting current.

We’ve featured many, many CNC plasma cutter tables before, but most of these builds have concentrated on the table more than the cutter. It’s a refreshing change to get some insider tips on what kinds of cutters work best, and how to adapt what you’ve got for the job.

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Toroid Transformers Explained

HF radios often use toroidal transformers and winding them is a rite of passage for many RF hackers. [David Casler, KE0OG] received a question about how they work and answered it in a recent video that you can see below.

Understanding how a conventional transformer works is reasonably simple, but toroids often seem mysterious because the thing that makes them beneficial is also what makes them confusing. The magnetic field for such a transformer is almost totally inside the “doughnut,” which means there is little interaction with the rest of the circuit, and the transformer can be very efficient.

The toroid itself is made of special material. They are usually formed from powdered iron oxide mixed with other metals such as cobalt, copper, nickel, manganese, and zinc bound with some sort of non-conducting binder like an epoxy. Ferrite cores have relatively low permeability, low saturation flux density, and low Curie temperature. The powder also reduces the generation of eddy currents, a source of loss in transformers. Their biggest advantage is their high electrical resistivity, which helps reduce the generation of eddy currents.

If you haven’t worked through how these common little transformers work, [David]’s talk should help you get a grip on them. These aren’t just for RF. You sometimes see them in power supplies that need to be efficient, too. If you are too lazy to wind your own, there’s always help.

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BBQ lighter fault injector

Blast Chips With This BBQ Lighter Fault Injection Tool

Looking to get into fault injection for your reverse engineering projects, but don’t have the cash to lay out for the necessary hardware? Fear not, for the tools to glitch a chip may be as close as the nearest barbecue grill.

If you don’t know what chip glitching is, perhaps a primer is in order. Glitching, more formally known as electromagnetic fault injection (EMFI), or simply fault injection, is a technique that uses a pulse of electromagnetic energy to induce a fault in a running microcontroller or microprocessor. If the pulse occurs at just the right time, it may force the processor to skip an instruction, leaving the system in a potentially exploitable state.

EMFI tools are commercially available — we even recently featured a kit to build your own — but [rqu]’s homebrew version is decidedly simpler and cheaper than just about anything else. It consists of a piezoelectric gas grill igniter, a little bit of enameled magnet wire, and half of a small toroidal ferrite core. The core fragment gets a few turns of wire, which then gets soldered to the terminals on the igniter. Pressing the button generates a high-voltage pulse, which gets turned into an electromagnetic pulse by the coil. There’s a video of the tool in use in the Twitter thread, showing it easily glitching a PIC running a simple loop program.

To be sure, a tool as simple as this won’t do the trick in every situation, but it’s a cheap way to start exploring the potential of fault injection.

Thanks to [Jonas] for the tip.

The $50 Ham: A Cheap Antenna For The HF Bands

So far in the $50 Ham series, I’ve concentrated mainly on the VHF and UHF bands. The reason for this has to do mainly with FCC rules, which largely restrict Technician-level licensees to those bands. But there’s a financial component to it, too; high-frequency (HF) band privileges come both at the price of learning enough about radio to pass the General license test, as well as the need for gear that can be orders of magnitude more expensive than a $30 handy-talkie radio.

But while HF gear can be expensive, not everything needed to get on the air has to be so. And since it’s often the antenna that makes or breaks an amateur radio operator’s ability to make contacts, we’ll look at a simple but versatile antenna design that can be adapted to support everything from a big, powerful base station to portable QRP (low-power) activations in the field: the end-fed half-wave antenna.

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Digging In The Dirt Yields Homebrew Inductors

Let’s say you’re stranded on a desert island and want to get the news from the outside world. You’ll have to build your own crystal radio, of course, but your parts bin is nowhere to be found and Digi-Key isn’t delivering. So you’ll need to MacGuyver some components. Capacitors are easy with a couple of pieces of tinfoil, and a rectifier can be made from a pencil and a razor blade. But what about an inductor? Sure, air-core inductors will work, but just because you’re marooned doesn’t mean you’ve abandoned your engineering principles. Luckily, you’ve read [AC7ZL]’s treatise of making inductors from dirt, and with sand in abundance, you’re able to harvest enough material to put together some passable ferrite-core inductors.

Obviously, making your own inductive elements isn’t practical even in fanciful and contrived situations, but that doesn’t make the doing of it any less cool. The story begins with a walk in the Arizona desert many years ago, where [AC7ZL], aka [H.P. Friedrichs], spied bands of dark sand shooting through the underlying lighter sediments. These bands turned out to be magnetite, one of many iron-bearing minerals found in the area. Using a powerful magnet from an old hard drive and a plastic food container, he was able to harvest magnetite sand in abundance and refine it with multiple washing steps.

After experimentally determining the material’s permeability — about 2.3 H/m — [AC7ZL] proceeded with some practical applications. He was able to make a bar antenna for an AM radio by packing the sand into a PVC pipe and rewinding the coils around it. More permanent cores were made by mixing the sand with polyester resin and casting it into bars. Toroids were machined from fat bars of the composite on a lathe, much to the detriment of the cutting tools used.

The full-length PDF account of [AC7ZL]’s experiments makes for fascinating reading — the inductive elements he was able to create all performed great in everything from a Joule Thief to a Hartley oscillator up to 27 MHz. We love these kinds of stories, which remind us of some of the work being done by [Simplifier] and others.

Homebrew Coil Winder Makes Toroids A Snap To Wind

Anyone who has ever wound a toroidal coil by hand can tell you that it’s not exactly a fun job. Even with the kinds of coils used in chokes and transformers for ham radio, which generally have relatively few windings, passing all that wire through the toroid time after time is a pain. And woe unto anyone who guesses wrong on how much wire the job will take.

To solve those problems, [Sandeep] came up with this clever and effective toroid winder. The idea is to pass a small spool of magnet wire through the toroid’s core while simultaneously rotating the toroid to spread the windings out as evenly as possible. That obviously requires a winding ring that can be opened up to allow the toroid form to be inserted; [Sandeep] chose to make his winding ring out of plywood with a slit in it. Carrying the wire spool, the winding ring rotates on a C-shaped fixture that brackets the toroid, which itself rotates under stepper motor control on a trio of rollers. An Arduino controls the rotation of both motors, controlling the number of windings and their spread on the form. lacking a ferrite core for testing, [Sandeep] used a plywood ring as a stand-in, but the results are satisfying enough to make any manual coil-winder envious.

We love tools like this that make a boring job a snap. Whether it’s cutting wires for wiring harnesses or winding guitar pickups, tools like these are well worth the time spent to build them. But we suppose when it comes to toroid winding, one could always cheat.

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Homebrew Loop Antenna Brings The Shortwave World To You

Radio may be dead in terms of delivering entertainment, but it’s times like these when the original social network comes into its own. Being able to tune in stations from across the planet to get fresh perspectives on a global event can even be a life saver. You’ll need a good antenna to do that, which is where this homebrew loop antenna for the shortwave radio bands shines.

To be honest, pretty much any chunk of wire will do as an antenna for most shortwave receivers. But not everyone lives somewhere where it’s possible to string up a hundred meters of wire and get a good ground connection, which could make a passive loop antenna like this a good choice. Plus, loops tend to cancel the electrical noise that’s so part of life today, which can make it easier to pull in weak, distant stations.

[Thomas]’s design is based on a length of coaxial cable, which should be stiff enough to give the loop some stability, like a low-loss RG-8 or RG-213. The coax braid and dielectric are exposed at the midpoint of the cable to create a feed point, while the shield and center conductor at the other ends are cross-connected. A 1:1 transformer is wound on a toroid core to connect to the feedpoint; [Thomas] calls it a balun but we tend to think it’s more of an unun, since both the antenna and feedline are unbalanced. He reports good results from the loop across the shortwave band.

The shortwave and ham bands are a treasure trove of information and entertainment just waiting to be explored. Check them out — you might learn something, and you might even stumble across spies doing their thing.