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The Lightning Tree: Halloween

Over this past summer, I built “The Lightning Tree” — a 13-foot-tall steel and aluminum tree covered in hundreds of programmable LEDs.  Normally, The Lightning Tree slowly cycles through animations depicting the different seasons of the year, but for Halloween I reprogrammed it full of wild purples and oranges, and planted it in our front yard!

It attracted and delighted kids and grown-ups throughout Halloween night, but the time the sun rose, it had disappeared, like all things ephemeral and magic.  (To be clear: it disappeared in a good way, as Black Rock City does.)

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“Five Elements” light sculpture

After months of work, “Five Elements”, my first full light sculpture debuted this weekend at a private event.  This quick video shows a short clip of each ‘element’; the actual five-element cycle is 12 minutes long, repeating each of the five elements five times each hour.  As with any “version 1.0”, I have a dozen ways I’d like to polish and keep improving it, but I’m happy with it as is, too.

It’s illuminated by 150 RGB LEDs and controlled by an Arduino Uno using the FastSPI_LED library and my own custom code.
The installation at the debut event used a very different diffuser which made the LEDs more visible.  While both were good, I think I prefer this diffuser overall.


Small Scale Solar power presentation

I gave a “learning lunch” presentation on Small Scale Solar power today.  We had a great audience, got great questions, and had fun doing it — despite the definite lack of sunshine to play with today.

The Short Version is this:

  1. Hook a solar panel to a charge controller to a battery.  (There are starter kits with everything.)
  2. Presto: 12 Volt DC power!
  3. Use your newfound power as-is, or step down to 5v USB, or up to 120VAC using an inverter.

60 Watts of solar panels

The slides don’t tell the whole story by themselves; that requires my own personal song and dance routine.  Nevertheless, here they are, with “lite” graphics for fast download: PDF.


Rejuvenating solar garden lights — with nail polish!

Solar LED garden lights are everywhere these days, and by ‘everywhere’ I mean ‘in our yard.’  We’ve had some for a few years now, and simply through exposure to the elements, the plastic that covers the solar cells becomes so opaque that only a small amount of light gets to them any more.  With the solar cells deprived of even that meager light that we get in Massachusetts in the winter, the solar cells don’t recharge the battery, the battery doesn’t power the LED, the LED doesn’t light up, and our yard has a serious bling deficiency.  Eleanor and I took our solar garden lights inside to see if we could make them bright again somehow.

My first thought when confronting the frosted-over plastic was to try to ‘polish’ it with a fine-grit sandpaper.  I had 400-grit handy and tried it on one cell, the bottom one in this picture.  The top shows how weathered the cells were to start.

Solar garden lights, all 'frosted' over

The sanding helped a little.  Then I rinsed the sanded plastic dust off with water in the sink, and while it was wet it looked great, but as it dried it became frosted and opaque again.  Thinking that perhaps we could use a mild plastic solvent to ‘polish’ the rough surface, I dabbed the solar cells with acetone, but again, as soon as it dried, the surface went from clear to cloudy again.  “We need some way to keep it ‘looking wet’ even when it’s dry,” I mused.  Eleanor got a wide-eyed LIGHTBULB! look in her eyes, and grabbed a bottle of clear nail polish!  She applied a few test swatches.

Nail polish on solar cells?

The nail polish made the weathered old solar cells crystal clear again!  I held the lights while Eleanor applied an even coat of nail polish to all the solar cells.  It really didn’t matter whether the cells had been sanded or not, so we didn’t bother.

Using nail polish to rejuvinate solar cells

A few minutes later, the polish was dry, and we planted the lights outside again.  You can see how completely clear the solar cells are.  Our only concern was that the nail polish might block the UV light that provides a good portion of the solar energy to the cells.

Rejuvinated solar cells soaking up sunlight

We waited for twilight to fall, and when we checked the lights: success!

Fully-recharged solar light glowing brightly!

Even though it was mid-February the solar cells were now getting enough light to make the LEDs glow brightly!  The solar cell rejuvenation project was a total success, and once we figured out how to make the cells ‘clear’ again, it was a quick and easy.

So what did we learn? We learned that ‘frosted’ plastic reflects precious light away from the solar cells; clean, clear solar cells can capture much more light.  Clear nail polish is perfect for rejuvenating plastic-covered solar cells that have become weathered and dull. Some of the solar garden lights they sell have glass covers, and we speculated that they probably (1) are much more resistant to weathering, and (2) probably should be ‘cleaned’ differently from the plastic ones.  Sometimes you need to try one thing to find out what you need to try next.  Sometimes restating the problem out loud to someone else can give them new ideas.  During the dim, dark Massachusetts winter, having bright, cheery little lights in the yard is great.


Glowing bubbles?! Yes! …but no.

The other day I was in the store and my attention was caught by “Super Miracle Bubbles® GLOW FUSION™ Bubble Solution” — bubble soap that claimed that it made bubbles that glowed.  These were not bubbles that glowed-under-black-light (fluorescent), not bubbles that glowed-in-the-dark (phosphorescent), but actually bubbles that glowed-of-their-own-accord (chemiluminescent), or so the package claimed.  $3.99 later, I was the proud owner of a bottle of this magic elixir.

Later that night, well after dark, Rosa and I carefully followed the instructions, adding the two included packets of “activator A” and “activator B” to the bubble soap, and stirring (not shaking!) for a minute.  Lo and behold, the little bottle began to glow bright orange, like the innards of a glow stick!

Excited, we dipped the wand in the glowing solution, and blew some bubbles!  In the cold, dark, winter night, they looked like this:

…nothing.  Blackness.

We tried and tried, and sure enough, after a while from the right angle, for a fleeting second, you could see that the bubbles had a tiny glim of light.  But in practice, the drips of bubble solution that fell on the ground far outshone the bubbles themselves, and the full bottle itself was the brightest thing around.  There was no hope of getting enough light out of it to photograph them.

The directions (inside the package!) point all this out.  They tell you to cover the (clear) bottle with black tape or a black bag, and to let your eyes fully adjust to the dark to see the glowing bubbles.  Any other nearby light will drown out the few photons escaping from the bubbles themselves.  Also of note: the instructions repeat several times that these are for outdoor use only.

So, do they glow?  Technically, yes.  Practically, no.  You cannot get a good, satisfying, “glowing bubble” from this bubble solution.  On the other hand, it is pretty nifty to have a bottle of bubble solution that’s glowing in your hand while you’re blowing bubbles.  Fun?  Kinda.  Worth $3.99?  Not for regular use.  Worth trying once?  Yep, and I’m glad we did.

-Mark

Updated April 4, 2012: Here’s a video of some Occupy folks experimenting with adding the contents of a chemical glow stick to some bubble soap.  They got more or less the same results I did, but by a different route.  Clearly, we need some SUPER glow chemicals…