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Open Source: how low can you go?

Posted by Andrew Back on

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Nyanotechnology!

A 600 um long “Nyan Cat” etched into 200nm thick copper film (HomeCMOS project, New BSD License)

First we had software where the source code is made freely available to all. Then came open source hardware in the form of liberal licensed schematic diagrams, PCB layouts and FPGA cores. But just how low level could open source go? Intrepid materials experimenters and open manufacturing enthusiasts are set on answering this question by attempting to fabricate their own electronic components from scratch.

You'd be mistaken if you thought that this was about resistors crudely fashioned from the core of a pencil or capacitors from rolled up foil and paper. And undeniably impressive as making your own vacuum tube is, this is not about retro technology. In fact, quite the opposite in many cases.

Printed electronics

Printed Electronics

3D printing has captured the imagination of enthusiasts across the globe and resulted in user groups being set up, successful start-ups being founded and creative schemes to get the technology into the hands of many.

Additive manufacturing has been around for decades and the spark for the revolution of recent years has been provided by RepRap, a highly affordable open source 3D printer whose master stroke is that it is capable of partial self-replication. Meaning that complex mechanical parts can be printed out by one RepRap, combined with things such as steel threaded rod and stepper motors and used to build another “child” machine.

Motivated by the goal of being able to print all of the non off-the-shelf parts, the RepRap project is developing technology for printing circuit boards and perhaps even certain components.

Above image: an early printed circuit by Rhys Jones (RepRap blog, GFDL v1.2)

DIY CMOS and MEMS fabrication

The HomeCMOS project is dedicated to developing hobbyist-friendly processes for the microfabrication of CMOS and MEMS devices, providing documentation for these under the BSD open source licence. The project may be some way from being able to produce a usable IC, but the team has had success with a number of processes that make use of easily available materials, and have demonstrated etching a 600um long image into 200nm thick copper film.

Creating supercapacitor electrodes with a DVD drive

DIY Graphene

Graphene is a two dimensional material consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb, that was first isolated in 2004 at the University of Manchester by Prof. Andre Geim and Prof. Konstantin Novoselov. Heralded as a “miracle material”, Graphene holds great promise for many high tech applications, one of which is in the construction of “supercapacitors” that have battery-like storage capacities and very high charge and discharge rates.

The production of Graphene has presented a significant challenge and the cost in 2008 was in the order of $100,000,000/cm2. But earlier this year researchers at UCLA announced that they had developed a process for creating Graphene supercapacitor electrodes by painting a layer of graphite oxide onto a DVD and then laser treating this inside a DVD drive. This resulted in much excitement amongst the open source manufacturing community , and demonstrates how cutting edge materials can be produced by creative re-purposing of commodity technology.

Above image: an attempt at DIY Graphene production using another method: burning magnesium in dry ice (Flickr user: workie, CC BY 2.0)

Conclusion

It's unlikely that micro-manufacturing is going to be able to compete with large scale manufacture on efficiency or performance, unless we see a profound and truly world-changing paradigm shift in how electronics are manufactured. Which is a distinct possibility but one that may be some years in the future.

But what these early endeavours demonstrate is how grassroots communities of interest are able to tackle problems which most would regard as the reserve of well-funded R&D labs. And while they may appear decidedly amateur, it is often from such humble beginnings that technological revolutions are born which lead to the reconfiguration of entire industries.

Andrew Back

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