No Doorknobs Needed For This Nitrogen Laser Build

Sometimes the decision to tackle a project or not can boil down to sourcing parts. Not everything is as close as a Digi-Key or Mouser order, and relying on the availability of surplus parts from eBay or other such markets can be difficult. Knowing if and when a substitute will work for an exotic part can sometimes be a project all on its own.

Building lasers is a great example of this, and [Les Wright] recently looked at substitutes for hard-to-find “doorknob” capacitors for his transversely excited atmospheric lasers. We took at his homebrew TEA lasers recently, which rely on a high voltage supply and very rapid switching to get nitrogen gas to lase. His design uses surplus doorknob caps, big chunky parts rated for very high voltages but also with very low parasitic inductance, which makes them perfect for the triggering circuit.

[Les] tried to substitute cheaper and easier-to-find ceramic power caps with radial wire leads rather than threaded lugs. With a nominal 40-kV rating, one would expect these chunky blue caps to tolerate the 17-kV power supply, but as he suspected, the distance between the leads was short enough to result in flashover arcing. Turning down the pressure in the spark gap chamber helped reduce the flashover and prove that these caps won’t spoil the carefully engineered inductive properties of the trigger. Check out the video below for more details.

Thanks to [Les] for following up on this and making sure everyone can replicate his designs. That’s one of the things we love about this community — true hackers always try to find a way around problems, even when it’s just finding alternates for unobtanium parts.

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How About A Nice Cuppa TEA Laser?

If lasers are your hobby, you face a conundrum. There are so many off-the-shelf lasers that use so many different ways of amplifying and stimulating light that the whole thing can be downright — unstimulating. Keeping things fresh therefore requires rolling your own lasers, and these DIY nitrogen TEA and dye lasers seem like a fun way to go.

These devices are the work of [Les Wright], who takes us on a somewhat lengthy but really informative tour of transversely excited atmospheric (TEA) lasers. The idea with TEA lasers is that a gas, often carbon dioxide in commercial lasers but either air or pure nitrogen in this case, is excited by a high-voltage discharge across long parallel electrodes. TEA lasers are dead easy to make — we’ve covered them a few times — but as [Les] points out, that ease of construction leads to designs that are more ad hoc than engineered.

In the video below, [Les] presents three designs that are far more robust than the typical TEA laser. His lasers use capacitors made from aluminum foil with polyethylene sheets for dielectric, sometimes with the addition of beautiful “doorknob” ceramic caps too. A spark gap serves as a very fast switch to discharge high voltage across the laser channel, formed by two closely spaced aluminum hex bars. Both the spark gap and the laser channel can be filled with low-pressure nitrogen. [Les] demonstrates the power and the speed of his lasers, which can even excite laser emissions in a plain cuvette of rhodamine dye — no mirrors needed! Although eye protection is, of course.

These TEA lasers honestly look like a ton of fun to build and play with. You might not be laser welding or levitating stuff with them, but that’s hardly the point.

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