Whirling Shutters On This Field Mill Measure Electrostatic Charges At Distance

Hardly a person hasn’t experienced the sudden, sharp discharge of static electricity, especially on a crisp winter’s day. It usually requires a touch, though, the classic example being a spark from finger to doorknob after scuffing across the carpet. But how would one measure the electrostatic charge of an object without touching it? Something like this field mill, which is capable of measuring electrostatic charge over a range of several meters, will do the trick.

We confess to not having heard of field mills before, and found [Leo Fernekes]’ video documenting his build to be very instructive. Field mills have applications in meteorology, being used to measure the electrostatic state of the atmosphere from the ground. They’ve also played a role in many a scrubbing of rocket launches, to prevent the missile from getting zapped during launch.

[Leo]’s mill works much like the commercial units: a grounded shutter rotates in front of two disc-shaped electrodes, modulating the capacitance of the system relative to the outside world. The two electrodes are fed into a series of transimpedance amplifiers, which boost the AC signal coming from them. A Hall sensor on the shutter allows sampling of the signal to be synchronized to the rotation of the shutter; this not only generates the interrupts needed to sample the sine wave output of the amplifier at its peaks and troughs, but it also measures whether the electrostatic field is positive or negative. Check out the video below for a great explanation and a good looking build with a junk-bin vibe to it.

Meteorological uses aside, we’d love to see this turned toward any of the dozens of Tesla coil builds we’ve seen. From the tiny to the absurd, this field mill should be able to easily measure any Tesla coil’s output with ease.

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[Ben Krasnow] Builds A Mass Spectrometer

One of the features that made Scientific American magazine great was a column called “The Amateur Scientist.” Every month, readers were treated to experiments that could be done at home, or some scientific apparatus that could be built on the cheap. Luckily, [Ben Krasnow]’s fans remember the series and urged him to tackle a build from it: a DIY mass spectrometer. (Video, embedded below the break.)

[Ben] just released the video below showing early experiments with a copper tube contraption that was five months in the making; it turns out that analytical particle physics isn’t as easy as it sounds. The idea behind mas spectrometry is to ionize a sample, accelerate the ions as they pass through a magnetic field, and measure the deflection of the particles as a function of their mass-to-charge ratio. But as [Ben] discovered, the details of turning a simple principle into a working instrument are extremely non-trivial.

His rig uses filaments extracted from carefully crushed incandescent lamps to ionize samples of potassium iodide chloride; applied to the filament and dried, the salt solution is ionized when the filament is heated. The stream of ions is accelerated by a high-voltage field and streamed through a narrow slit formed by two razor blades. A detector sits orthogonal to the emitter across a powerful magnetic field, with a high-gain trans-impedance amplifier connected. With old analog meters and big variacs, the whole thing has a great mad scientist vibe to it that reminds us a bit of his one-component interferometer setup.

[Ben]’s data from the potassium sample agreed with expected results, and the instrument is almost sensitive enough to discern the difference between two different isotopes of potassium. He promises upgrades to the mass spec in the future, including perhaps laser ionization of the samples. We’re looking forward to that.

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Radiation Detector Eschews Tubes, Uses Photodiode

When the topic is radiation detection, thoughts turn naturally to the venerable Geiger-Müller tube. It’s been around for ages, Russian surplus tubes are available for next to nothing, and it’s easy to use. But as a vacuum tube it can be somewhat delicate, and the high voltages needed to run it can be a little on the risky side.

Luckily, there are other ways to see what’s going on in the radioactive world, like this semiconductor radiation detector. [Robert Gawron] built it as a proof-of-concept after having built a few G-M tube detectors before. His solid-state design relies on a reverse-biased photodiode conducting when ionizing radiation hits the P-N junction. The tiny signal is amplified by a pair of low-noise op-amps and output to a BNC connector. The sensor’s analog output is sent to an oscilloscope whose trigger out is connected to a Nucleo board for data acquisition. The Nucleo is in turn connected to a Raspberry Pi for totalizing and logging. It’s a complicated chain, but the sensor appears to work, even detecting alpha emissions from thoriated TIG electrodes, a feat we haven’t been able to replicate with our G-M tube counter.

[Robert]’s solid-state detector might not be optimal, but it has promise. And we have seen PIN diodes used as radiation detectors before, too.

[via Dangerous Prototypes]