When Johnny Cash wrote “Ring of Fire”, he was talking about love. But when an unnamed follower of [TheBackyardScientist] took it literally and suggested making actual rings of fire — underwater — they rose to the challenge as you can see in the video below the break.
Of course there are several ingredients to underwater fire rings. First you need water, and a pool clearly does the job in this video. Second, you need flammable rings of gas. [TheBackyardScientist] decided to build a machine to create the gas rings, and it’s quite interesting to see them go through several iterations before settling on a voice coil based poppet valve design. We must say that it works absolutely swimmingly.
Lastly there needs to be fire. And for fire, you need something flammable, and something shocking. Forty thousands volts light up a spark plug, even underwater. The fuel is provided by what appears to be compressed air and acetylene but we’re not 100% sure. We are sure that it goes bang! quite sufficiently, as demonstrated by its aptitude for blowing things up.
We appreciated the engineering that went into the project but also the rapid iterations of ideas, the overcoming of serious obstacles and the actual science that went into the project. Even if it is just randomly making literal burning rings of fire.
It’s no secret that we think flexures are pretty cool, and we’ve featured a number of projects that leverage these compliant mechanisms to great effect. But when we saw flexures used in a six-DOF positioner with micron accuracy, we just had to dig a little deeper.
The device is known as the Hexblade, and it comes to us from the lab of [Jonathan Hopkins] at UCLA. We have to admit that at times, the video below feels a little like the “Turbo Encabulator” schtick — “three identical decoupled actuation limbs arranged in an axisymmetric configuration” may be perfectly descriptive, but it does not flow trippingly from the tongue. Hats off to [Professor Hopkins] for nailing the narration, though, and really, once you get a handle on the jargon, it all makes perfect sense. The platform is supported by a total of six flexures, which look like bent pieces of sheet metal but are actually cut from a solid block of material using wire EDM. Three of the flexures are oriented in the plane of the platform, while the other three are perpendicular to it. The far end of each flexure is connected to a voice-coil actuator that is surrounded by another flexure, this one in a parallelogram arrangement. The six actuators can move the platform smoothly through three linear translations (X, Y, and Z) and three rotations (roll, pitch, and yaw).
The platform’s range of motion is limited, but the advantages of using flexures as bearings are clear — there’s no backlash or hysteresis, and the voice coils can control the position of the stage to micron accuracy. Something like the Hexblade would be an ideal positioner for microscopy, and we can imagine an even smaller version, perhaps even a MEMS-fabricated one for nanomanufacturing applications. The original concept of the Hexblade serving as the print head for a fabrication robot for space applications is pretty cool, too, and we’d venture to say that a homebrew version of this probably isn’t out of reach either.
Doorbells are among those everyday objects that started out simple but picked up an immense amount of complexity over the years. What began as a mechanism to bang two pieces of metal together evolved into all kinds of wired and wireless electric bells, finally culminating in today’s smart doorbells that beam a live video feed to their owners even if they’re half a world away.
But sometimes, less is more. [Low tech obsession] built a doorbell out of spare components that doesn’t require Internet connectivity or even a power supply. But it’s not a purely mechanical device either: the visitor turns a knob mounted on a stepper motor, generating pulses of alternating current. These pulses are then fed into the voice coil of an old hard drive, causing its arm to vibrate and strike a bell, mounted where the platters used to be.
Besides being a great piece of minimalistic design, the doorbell is also a neat demonstration of Faraday’s law of induction. The stepper motor is apparently robust enough to withstand vandalism, although we can imagine that the doorbell’s odd shape might confuse some well-meaning visitors too. If you’re into unusual doorbells, you might want to check out this one made from an old wall phone, as well as this electromechanical contraption.
At least that’s what [Leo] did when he created “PendoLux”. The clock itself is pretty simple; like any POV project, it just requires a way to move an array of flashing LEDs back and forth rapidly enough that they can trick the eye into seeing a solid image. [Leo] put the read head mechanism of an old HDD into use for that, after stripping the platters and motor out of it first.
The voice coil and magnet of the head arm are left intact, while a 3D-printed arm carrying seven RGB LEDs replaces the old heads. [Leo] added a small spring to return the arm to a neutral position, and used an Arduino to drive the coil and flash the LEDs. Getting the timing just right was a matter of trial and error; he also needed to eschew the standard LED libraries because of his heavy use of interrupts and used direct addressing instead.
POV clocks may have dropped out of style lately — this hard drive POV clock and a CD-ROM version were posted years ago. But [Leo]’s clock is pretty good looking even for a work in progress, so maybe the style will be making a comeback.
The tin can phone is a staple of longitudinal wave demonstrations wherein a human voice vibrates the bottom of a soup can, and compression waves travel along a string to reproduce the speaker in another can at the other end. All the parts in this electrical demonstration are different, but the concept is the same.
Speakers are sound transducers that turn electrical impulses into air vibrations, but they generate electricity when their coil vibrates. Copper wires carry those impulses from one cup to another. We haven’t heard of anyone making a tin can phone amplifier, but the strictly passive route wasn’t working, so an op-amp does some messy boosting. The link and video demonstrate the parts and purposes inside these sound transducers in an approachable way. Each component is constructed in sequence so you can understand what is happening and make sense of the results.
Motors are everywhere; DC motors, AC motors, steppers, and a host of others. In this article, I’m going to look beyond these common devices and search out more esoteric and unusual electronic actuators that might just find a place in one of your projects. In any case, their mechanisms are interesting in their own right! Join me after the break for a survey of piezo, magnetostrictive, magnetorheological, voice coils, galvonometers, and other devices. I’d love to hear about your favorite actuators and motors too, so please comment below!
Piezo actuators and motors
Piezoelectric materials sometimes seem magic. Apply a voltage to a piezoelectric material and it will move, as simple as that. The catch of course is that it doesn’t move very much. The piezoelectric device you’re probably most familiar with is the humble buzzer. You’d usually drive these with less than 10 volts. While a buzzer will produce a clearly audible sound you can’t really see it flexing (as it does shown above).
To gauge the motion of a buzzer I recently attempted to drive one with a 150 volt piezo driver, this resulted in a total deflection of around 0.1mm. Not very much by normal standards!
For some applications however resolution is of primary interest rather than range of travel. It is here that piezo actuators really shine. The poster-boy application of piezo actuators is perhaps the scanning probe microscope. These often require sub-nanometer accuracy (less than 1000th of 1000th of 1 millimeter) in order to visualize individual atoms. Piezo stacks are ideal here (though hackers have also used cheap buzzers!).
Sometimes though you need high precision over a larger range of travel. There are a number of piezo configurations that allow this. Notably Inchworm, “LEGS”, and slip-stick actuators.
The PiezoMotor LEGS actuator is shown to the above. As noted, Piezos only produce small (generally sub-millimeter) motion. Rather than using this motion directly, LEGS uses this motion to “walk” along a rod, pushing it back and forth. The rod is therefore moved, in tiny nanometer steps. However, piezos can move quickly (flexing thousands of times a second). And the LEGS (and similar Inchworm actuator) allows relatively quick, high force, and high resolution motion.
The tablecloth trick (yes this one’s fake, the kid is ok don’t worry. :))
Another type of long travel piezo actuator uses the “stick-slip phenomenon”. This is much like the tablecloth magic trick shown above. If you pull the cloth slowly there will be significant friction between the cloth and this crockery and they will be dragged along with the cloth. Pull it quickly and there will be less friction and the crockery will remain in place.
This difference between static and dynamic friction is exploited in stick-slip actuators. The basic mechanism is shown in the figure below.
When extending slowing a jaw rotates a screw, but if the piezo stack is compressed quickly the screw will not return. The screw can therefore be made to rotate. By inverting the process (extending quickly, then compressing slowly) the process is reversed and the screw is turned in the opposite direction. The neat thing about this configuration is that it retains much of the piezo’s original precision. Picomotors have resolutions of around 30 nanometer over a huge range of travel, typically 25mm, they’re typically used for optical focusing and alignment and can be picked up on eBay for 100 dollars or so. Oh and they can also be used to make music. Favorites include Stairway to Heaven, and not 1 but 2 versions of Still Alive (from Portal). Obligatory Imperial March demonstration is embedded here:
There are numerous other piezo configurations, but typically they are used to provide high force, high precision motion. I document a few more over on my blog.
Magnetostriction is the tendency of a material to change shape under a magnetic field. We’ve been talking about magnetostriction quite a lot lately. However much like piezos it can also be used for high precision motion. Unlike piezos they require relatively low voltages for operation and have found niche applications.
Magnetorheological (MR) fluids are pretty awesome! Much like ferrofluids, MR fluids respond to changes in magnetic field strength. However, unlike ferrofluids it’s their viscosity that changes.
This novel characteristic has found applications in a number of areas. In particularly the finishing of precise mirrors and lens used in semiconductor and astronomical applications. This method uses an electromagnet to change the viscosity of the slurry used to polish mirrors, removing imperfections. The Hubble telescope’s highly accurate mirrors were apparently finished using this technique (though hopefully not that mirror). You can purchase MR fluid in small quantities for a few hundred dollars.
While magnetic motors operate through the attraction and repulsion of magnetic fields, electrostatic motors exploit the attraction and repulsion of electric change to produce motion. Electrostatic forces are orders or magnitude smaller that magnetic ones. However they do have niche applications. One such application is MEMS motors, tiny (often less than 0.01mm) sized nanofabricated motors. At these scales electromagnetic coils would be too large and specific power (power per unit volume) is more important than the magnitude of the overall force.
Voice coils and Galvanometers
The voice coil is your basic electromagnet. They’re commonly used in speakers, where an electromagnet in the cone reacts against a fixed magnet to produce motion. However voice coil like configurations are used for precise motion control elsewhere (for example to focus the lens of an optical drive, or position the read head of a hard disc drive). One of the cooler applications however is the mirror galvanometer. As the name implies the device was originally used to measure small currents. A current through a coil moved a rod to which a mirror was attached. A beam of light reflect off the mirror and on to a wall effectively created a very long pointer, amplifying the signal.
These days ammeters are far more sensitive of course, but the mirror galvanometer has found more entertaining applications:
High speed laser “galvos” are used to position a laser beam producing awesome light shows. Modern systems can position a laser beam at kilohertz speeds, rendering startling images. These systems are effectively high speed vector graphic like line drawing systems, resulting in a number of interesting algorithmic challenges. Marcan’s OpenLase framework provides a host of tools for solving these challenges effectively, and is well worth checking out.
In this article I’ve tried to highlight some interesting and lesser known techniques for creating motion in electronic systems. Most of these have niche scientific, industrial or artistic applications. But I hope they also also offer inspiration as you work on your own hacks! If you have a favorite, lesser known actuator or motor please comment below!