Hydroponics at Hive76

My current project at Hive76 is working on indoor hydroponic systems.   The project comes from an interest in plants that I picked up from tending to my mother’s  garden as a child.   My family was fortunate to have enough land for a sizable garden when I was growing up, but now that I live near center city Philadelphia, good plots of land can be difficult to find. So I naturally turned to hydroponics because it is not limited by land area the same way that traditional farming is.

Hydroponics has the potential to revolutionize farming as we know it because it allows for plants to be grown in highly controlled environments.  This means that the light, water, and nutrients that plants need to thrive can be optimized to promote rapid growth while reducing waste and pollution.   Also, as mentioned before, hydroponics systems be built vertically instead of just horizontally, which is a huge benefit in dense urban environments like Philadelphia.

Even with all the potential benefits of hydroponics, it has yet to become a competitor with traditional farming in the open market.  There are many reasons for this, one reason is that the cost of lighting in an indoor hydroponic system will always cost more than traditional farming, which gets its light for free from the sun.  (Luckily the cost of lighting is dropping all the time with advancements in florescent bulbs and LED technology.) Another reason is that there is a lot of politics around farming that doesn’t favor the development of hydroponics.

Despite all the this, hydroponics is still holds a lot of potential to revolutionize agriculture.  It is also a great way to learn about plant science.  I’m particularly interested in using hydroponics to develop a low cost platform for amateur science experiments.   The hope is that by empowering people with the right tools , the next breakthrough in agriculture might come from a high-school student’s science fair project!

The hydroponic system that I am building at Hive76 is very much in the early stages. In the meantime, I wanted to post a video on a previous hydroponic system that I built in my basement 2 years ago.   It works by flooding the roots of the plants with water supplied by a reservoir below.

Enjoy and stay tuned for updates!

Giving the Gift of Making

This year I wanted to do something a little different for Christmas gifts. Instead of just getting people electronics or video games or clothes, I wanted to give something that encouraged creativity and making. A lot of people never even think to try to make things on their own, so maybe a little hobby-style gift will give them a taste and spark an interest.

Texas Instruments MSP430 LaunchPad.

To that end, I did two things. First, I bought ten MSP430 LaunchPads. These things are really inexpensive, so they make great stocking-stuffers. If you don’t know what the MSP430 is already (really, we talk about it constantly, where have you been), it’s a 16-bit microcontroller with really low-power consumption needs. They run on 1.8 to 3.6v power supplies at up to 16MHz, making them quite a powerful little beast for only $4.30, which includes the chip programmer. If you were to buy the chips alone, they cost about $0.50 each, with a few different serial communication protocols built in, and requiring only a small selection of external parts (2 resistors and 2 caps if you want to do it right, 1 resistor if you’re living dangerously, and face it, at $0.50, you can afford to live dangerously). It’s something of a long-term project plan of mine to buy 100 of these and try to build a small, physical neural network computer.

A lot of people have shied away from the MSP430 because the Code Composer Studio software–based on the professional-grade Eclipse development environment–is very difficult to use in comparison to the Processing-based software typically used to program Arduinos. But luckily, someone has taken the Arduino cue and created Energia, a Processing-based editor for use with TI’s LaunchPad line of MCUs! If you’re experienced with Arduino, using Energia is a snap, and if you’re not experienced at all, it’s really not that big of a learning curve.

Second, I bought supplies to make “magnetic Silly Putty”. About a week ago, I saw this Instructable about kneading some Iron-Oxide powder into a little Silly Putty and jumped on Amazon right away to get a 6-pack of Silly Putty eggs and a 5 lbs bag of black Iron-Oxide pigment. Honstely, 5-lbs is way too much, but there are plenty of other things you can do with it, like make ferrofluids or your own paint, so it’s handy to have around. You will need a fairly strong neodymium magnet, but again, these things are fun enough to have around anyway, so have at it!

Making the putty is really easy. I pooled all 6 eggs of putty together in a non-stick pan. On very low heat, I warmed up the putty until it was just too hot to handle with my bare hands. If it starts to become the consistency of chewing gum and sticks to the pan, don’t worry, it will unstick when it cools down. Don’t heat it further than that though, it will start to smoke and burn. Wearing rubber gloves to give me just enough insulation from the heat and to keep my hands from getting stained black, it’s just a matter of working a large, heaping tablespoon-full of the black powder into the putty. You will need to work the putty like taffy, stretching it and folding it to blend the powder evenly into it. Once the powder is sufficiently kneaded in to the putty, it will not stain anything, so keep testing it on the back of your rubber glove to see if it leaves any marks. I then cut the putty into 6 equal chunks and shoved them back in their eggs. It took 10 minutes total. I thought about taking some photos of the process to show it off, but really, it could not be simpler.

I’m hoping these gifts will be completely unexpected and will inspire people to try something they never would have considered on their own. The MSP430s are just a really easy, cheap, fun way to get into programming, and the magnetic Silly Putty is a great example of something you can’t buy as a product that is also extremely easy to make.

Hive76 casting Aluminum with Philadelphia Sculpture Gym

Lately, a few members have been discussing the use of 3D printed parts in use with metal casting techniques to create some stronger, lighter and more durable parts. As all good hackerspace conversations do, we immediately decided to go with the most painful and difficult solution: Metal Casting. Luckily for us the very next day, we got an e-mail that a local group, Philadelphia Sculpture Gym, that they intended on hosting an aluminium greensand casting class. A perfect opportunity to learn some metal casting techniques, even if not totally applicable to what we wanted to ultimately end up casting. Andrew S., and myself both signed up along with a few friends of Hive76.

About 30 minutes into making our own greensand molds, we realized that this was going to be a difficult process, and immediately destroyed several hours of work trying to get a good crisp mold for our first pour.

Several hours into our class, we managed to finally get a good solid mold of a 3D printed TARDIS. We hopped in line and got a pretty good looking cast. Andrew also attempted the TARDIS with some success. He also managed to get some good casts of a wooden puzzle, including one that blew out. However, due to our earlier troubles, we decided to hedge our bets and get one more good pour out of the class before we would start wrapping up. While waiting to pour ours, I was being shown how to work the furnace by Gus, and ended up melting down plenty of scrap and helping others make their pours which was a lot of fun to be working with. The furnace was operating at about 1300 Celsius, and moving around molten metal at that temperature can be quite a thrill. We plan on working with Gus and Darla at Philadelphia Sculpture Gym on some other types of casting techniques, especially as they apply to our 3D printing. We look forward to working with them in the future, and hope you all consider taking their next Greensand class in January.