Tag Archives: test

Measuring Telluric Currents – First Trial

Way back in November of last year (2010), I wrote a short little article on telluric currents, their history, and related applications.  Now, in case you’re unfamiliar with this topic (as I was prior to November of last year), here’s the executive summary: telluric, or earth currents, are electrical currents which travel through ground or water, primarily near the surface of the earth.  They may be naturally occurring (due to changes in the earth’s magnetic field via solar wind), or man-made (e.g, from mineral exploration).

Well towards the end of my previous post, I expressed a desire to try and measure these currents.  Unfortunately at that time, it was winter, and I was in the process of relocating to Iowa.  But now that I’ve settled in here, and the ground has finally thawed, I’ve gone out and performed a quick first measurement.  Here’s the procedure I followed:

  1. Obtain two 36″ lengths of standard rebar and 100′ of insulated 14 AWG copper wire (solid core works, but I used stranded for better contact with the rebar).
  2. Sand/file any rust from the surface of the rebar (to reduce contact resistance).
  3. Strip about two inches of insulation from the ends of the wire, then fray these ends and wrap them tightly around one end of each piece of rebar.  Cover these attachment areas with electrical tape.
  4. Cut the wire, which is now linking the two pieces of rebar, at any point (this is where the multimeter will be inserted).
  5. Space the two lengths of rebar as far apart horizontally as possible, then drive them into the ground as deeply as possible (in my case, this was about 20″).  For my first test, I configured the two so that they would point north to south based on the map shown here and my location in Iowa).  In other words, if I were to stand at the southern-most length of rebar, facing the other rod, I would be facing north.  They were separated by the 100′ of wire.
  6. Measure both current (short circuit) and voltage (open circuit).
  7. Finally, if anyone should question what the @#$% you’re doing pounding rebar into the ground, simple employ this catch-all excuse: “solar flare protection.

So, without further ado, I give you my results (in low-quality cellphone pic format):

Telluric Current - Well, it is measurable...

If you can’t quite make out that reading, my apologies.  The meter indicates 0.55mA (DC).  Yea, not too incredible, I know.  I also measured the voltage between the two rebar rods, but at just 105mV, it’s not terribly impressive either.  So, at best, we’ve got 14.5uW of power to play with – barely enough to run a digital watch (please see this excellent page on Thevenin equivalent circuits and the maximum power theorem for details on how that number was calculated).

Overall, these results are a little disappointing, both in quality and in quantity.  I had hoped to reconfigure my rods a couple of times so as to measure the current’s heading as well.  Unfortunately, for this test I picked a slightly wooded area that also happened to be teeming with mosquitoes.  I’ll do a lot of things for the sake of science, but serving as a meal for blood-sucking insects isn’t one of those things.

In the future, I’d like to leave the rebar in place for a while longer – say, 24 hours – and record data continuously during that time.  I’ve read in a number of sources that telluric currents tend to vary over the course of a day.  So, when I did my test this morning (8:30AM CST), I may have been measuring things as a low point.  The only trouble with capturing data for such an extended length of time is that I’ll need to find a more controllable location, and I’ll need to figure out how to log the data automatically.  I’ve got a few development boards I can probably re-purpose for that though…

So, in summary, for round two of testing I shall make the following changes:

  • Take measurements with the rods configured along different compass headings.
  • Log data for a consecutive period of at least 24 hours.

If anyone has other suggestions, please leave a comment.  Stay tuned for more.  Thanks!

Explaining the XMega XPlained (Dev. Board)

About two months ago, Atmel announced a smart new set of AVR development boards, the XPlained series.  One of these boards (which I’ve just recently purchased for $30) boasts a shiny new AVR XMega microcontroller.  What?  An XMega you say?  Why yes, haven’t you heard?  Come now, they’ve been around for fully three years at this point.  Well, don’t worry if this is fresh news, you’re not alone.  For some reason, adoption of the powerful new XMega MCU has been slow amongst hobbyists.

The XMega Xplained (click for high-res goodness)

When Atmel introduced their new XMega series of AVR microcontrollers back in 2008, I was pretty sure they’d be a quick sell.  Even in spite of their unavailability in DIP packaging, and this cheesy marketing video.  But sadly, a quick search of Hack a Day currently yields only four articles containing the term “XMega” (versus more than three hundred articles for “ATMega”).  I guess change is hard.  And yet, it’s really not.

The XMegas utilize the same AVR core as the ATMegas, and are fully supported by the free AVR-GCC compiler and AVR Studio (obviously, I guess).  Plus, you can still use your trusty AVRISP mkII programmer to load code onto an XMega.  In other words, the tool-chain is unchanged.  So, with a few register name changes, code from an ATMega will run perfectly well on an XMega.  Sadly though, the XMegas and ATMegas are not pin compatible, so you won’t be able to solder a new XMega onto your Arduino.

Alright, so for those of you keeping track, I guess I’ve now listed three strikes against the XMega which may help to explain its present unpopularity: no DIP packaging, no pin compatibility with the ATMegas, and changes to register names (plus the addition of new registers for new features).  Oh, and odd marketing tactics.  By the way, as a side note, it could be argued that the XMega register scheme is better than that of the old ATMegas.  They’re making good use of structs, so that you now address a port’s direction using PORTX.DIR, rather than DDRX.  And you output to that port using PORTX.OUT.

But let’s now take a look at the data in favor of the XMegas, yes?  To do that, we’ll compare the ATMega1280 (utilized on the Arduino MEGA) against the ATXMega128A1 (utilized on Atmel’s new XPlained development board):

Feature ATXmega128A1 ATMega1280
FLASH Memory 128KB 128KB
Max CLK Speed 32Mhz (PLL) 16Mhz
EEPROM Size 2KB 4KB
RAM Size 8KB 8KB
Voltage Range 1.6 – 3.6V 2.7V – 5.5V
ADC 16, 12-bit, 2Msps 16, 10-bit, 76.9Ksps
DAC 4, 12-bit, 1Msps N/A
USARTs 8 (one supports IrDA) 4
Hardware Encryption 128-bit AES, DES N/A
Timers 8, 16-bit 2, 8-bit and 4, 16-bit
Current Draw, 1Mhz, 1.8V 365uA 500uA
Event System Yes No
Price $10.20 $16.13

Not bad, right?  I’d say the XMega wins this round.  It’s faster, provides substantially better analog to digital conversion, offers digital to analog conversion (in other words, analog outputs – a feature not available on any ATMega), hardware-based encryption (again, not found on any ATMega), lower power consumption, and, wonder of wonders, a lower price.  I’m quite impressed (for what that’s worth) and am particularly excited about putting these new analog features to the test.  In fact, as I mentioned, I’ve just received my XPlained development board and have already written a quick test program to do ADC → DAC pass-through.  But I’ll describe my experiences with the XPlained board a bit later (spoiler alert: they weren’t all pleasant).

So what precisely does the new XMega series offer that makes it, in my opinion, such a substantial improvement over the ATMega series?  Let’s talk speed for a moment.  The old ATMega topped out at 20Mhz, at least officially (though overclocking is possible, as seen in the Uzebox gaming system).  But furthermore, there is no way to adjust the system clock on the fly (although you can, of course, adjust peripheral clocks).  You’d have to make fuse adjustments with an external programmer.  With the new XMega series, you can adjust the system’s clock frequency at run-time.  Both a 2Mhz and a 32Mhz internal RC oscillator are provided, plus a PLL which allows for clock multiplication (1x, 2x, 3x, …, 31x).  According to application note AVR1005, you can even use the PLL to increase the clock speed of your peripherals to a maximum of 128Mhz.  This might be useful for generating high-resolution PWM signals, for computing precise time intervals (think range-finders), or for just blinking an LED really really fast (although perhaps not this fast).  Man, I could’ve used this on my MS thesis

Another neat feature of the XMega series is the brand new event system which allows for high-speed signaling between peripherals.  This is not a communications bus in the traditional sense.  It’s actually more like a set of, shall we say, “personalized” interrupts sent between features.  Event signals can be sent quite rapidly – in no more than two clock cycles – and don’t require the CPU to be active.

The XMega Event System

The XMega’s event system opens up a whole new world of possibilities.  With it, you could tie a set of 16-bit counters together to form one highly-accurate 32-bit counter.  Or, how about this application note example:

You could use one event to synchronize two modules. For instance, you could use a pin change event to do an ADC conversion and an input capture on the Timer/Counter to get exact time-stamps for each conversion.

For more details on the event system, see the “Getting Started with XMega” application note AVR1005 or the “Getting Started with the XMega Event System” note AVR1001.

First Impressions of the XMega XPlained Dev Board

Alright, well let’s get down to business here.  As I mentioned earlier, I’m now the proud owner of a brand new Atmel XMega XPlained development board.  I was putting in an order with Digi-Key the other night when I thought to search for XMega products (yes, shame on me, I haven’t tried them out until now).  I found just one, but it was precisely what I was looking for: low cost ($30.16), USB-powered, and covered in blinking lights (well, nine of them anyways).  So of course I bought it.  I mean, it’s not quite as much of a steal as the $4.30 TI Launchpad, but even at $30, I didn’t even bother to do research before adding it to my cart.   I just figured it would work.  🙂  Bad idea, I know…

So what did I get for my money?  A pretty padded box and the board itself.  Nothing more.  No documentation whatsoever, only a printed messages on the outside of the box requesting I go online for any required drivers and data.

XMega Xplained Unboxing

Now the lack of paper is fine with me; if Atmel wants to save some trees, good for them.  I’d have gone online for datasheets and schematics anyway.  My only gripe here is that Atmel’s site isn’t all that easy to navigate.  In fact I don’t think I ever located a link to the ZIP file associated with AVR1927 (instead I just crossed my fingers, manually typed in the assumed link, and bingo).  But maybe I’m just bad at the internet.  Well for the sake of centralization, here are a few URLs I found helpful when getting started:

The XMega XPlained comes pre-programmed with a cute little application that blinks its nine LEDs and plays different sounds (drums, trumpets, etc. – just one- or two-second clips) when each of the eight different buttons are pressed. And I’ve got to say, the little speaker actually impressed me with its sound quality.  It’s not exactly a M-Audio studio monitor, but it’ll probably hold its own against a speakerphone.  And it’s certainly not being driven by square waves; they’re making good use of the XMega’s analog outputs (DACs).  So what else does the XPlained offer?  Well, here’s the official list:

  • External memory (8MB SDRAM, MT48LC16M4A2TG)
  • Atmel AT32UC3B1256
    • Communication gateway
    • Programmer for Atmel AVR XMEGA
  • Analog input (to ADC)
  • Analog output (from DAC)
    • Mono speaker via audio amplifier
  • Digital I/O
    • UART communication through USB gateway
    • 8 mechanical button switches
    • 8 LEDs (plus one bi-color LED)
    • 8 spare analog pins
    • 24 spare digital pins

Programming the XPlained using FLIP

So the pre-loaded software entertained me for about sixty seconds, after which my desire to reprogram the board overcame my fascination with lights and sound effects.  I didn’t have my AVRISP mkII handy (left it at work again), so I started by looking into reprogramming via the board’s USB connection.  The first thing I needed was a driver for the virtual COM port (Windows 7 did not recognize the XPlained), a single INF file:

USB CDC Driver (Virtual COM Port) – required for USART communications.

I was pleased to find that the instructions provided in the “Getting Started” guide (AVR1927) for using the Flexible In-System Programmer (FLIP) for RS232 programming were quite simple.  I downloaded and installed FLIP via this link.  I also had to import an XML configuration file (provided here), although it sounded like this file should have been included in the latest FLIP installer.  But before adding this file to <Install Directory>Flip 3.4.xbinPartDescriptionFiles, I received an error stating that “the device does not exist” when using BatchISP (the FLIP command line utility).  I also attempted to use the FLIP GUI directly, but for some reason the RS232 communication option was greyed out.  No problem though, I simply threw the programming commands given in the instructions into a simple batch file:

batchisp -device ATXMEGA128A1 -hardware RS232 -port COM25 -baudrate 115200 -operation onfail abort memory flash erase f blankcheck loadbuffer c:xmegatestdefaultxmegatest.hex program verify start reset 0

pause

I’ve highlighted the elements you’ll want to change when using this file.  Including that pause command causes the command window to wait for you to press a key before closing, that way you can take a look at the results of your programming attempt:

FLIP (BatchISP) Command Line Programmer

So using BatchISP (FLIP) worked just fine for me.  The whole programming process took a bit longer than I would have expected (maybe 20 seconds), but it’s not terrible.  The one catch is that you have to unplug the XPlained board, and then plug it back in while holding down switch SW0, every time you want to reprogram.  This is required in order to activate the bootloader.  Doing this gets old fast, and it didn’t seem to please my computer (it would occasionally freeze for a few seconds when the device was quickly plugged back in).  But there is an easier way; keep reading…

Programming the XPlained using the AVRISP mkII

So based on the literature I’ve run across, it seems the preferred means of reprogramming (and debugging) an XMega is via JTAG using either the AVR Dragon ($50), the AVR JTAGICE mkII ($300), or the Cadillac of debugger/programmers, the AVR ONE! ($600 – perhaps this is the reason for the exclamation point).  The new XMega series uses the PDI (Program and Debug Interface) programming interface (as opposed to ISP).  However, it is possible to use the AVRISP mkII programmer (though you cannot use it for debugging), which costs just $35.  And if you’ve done anything with AVRs in the past, you’ve probably got one of these hanging around (I should note that the original AVRISP, the one with the DB9 port, will not work with the XMega series).

Now, to get your AVRISP working with the XMega Xplained, you’ll need to create a simple pin adapter.  You cannot connect directly to the board as the pins are arranged for a 10-pin JTAG connection (I guess Atmel really wants you to use JTAG).  However, you’ll only need to connect four of the six pins present on your AVRISP, as shown in this diagram (found on page 9 of the XMega “Getting Started” guide, AVR1005):

AVRISP Pinout Comparison

These pins can be found on the XPlained’s JTAG connector, as shown in the schematics:

XMega XPlained JTAG Connector

Once you’ve made these connections, you can use AVR Studio to reprogram your device as usual.  Well, almost.  First, you need to make sure it’s fairly up-to-date (I used version 4.18, build 700 with success, but you might go straight to AVR Studio 5, which I’ve also tried with success).  You’ll then need to manually specify the ATXMega128A1 before programming or adjusting fuses.  Plus, and this is key, you’ll want to disable the JTAG interface by using AVR Studio to clear the JTAGEN bit on the fuses tab.  If you don’t, your programming may or may not be successful.  I actually got into an interesting cycle where alternate programming/read events would fail.  I’d perform one operation successfully, but on the next I’d see “Entering programming mode…FAILED.”  But disabling the JTAG interface took care of this issue.  And doing so does not prevent you from re-enabling JTAG later, or from using BatchISP (though you may need to reload the bootloader if you’ve erased it, which may be found in this ZIP).

For more details on programming and debugging an XMega, see this article (and actually, check out all of these “Getting Started with XMega” articles, they’re quite good).

A First Test of the Analog I/O

Now I think I’ve stated this already, but again, I’m pretty excited about the new analog I/O offered on the XMega series.  In particular, the 12-bit digital to analog converters (DACs) open up a whole new world of options.  I mean, there are all sorts of applications out there that might benefit from an on-chip DAC: function generators, analog power supplies, audio processors, lighting controls, you name it!

So the first bit of code I wrote for my XMega is a simple ADC → DAC pass-through.  It’s a touch long to include in this post (because of all the comments), but please feel free to download it here.  The code takes an analog input on ADCA1 (PORTA1, pin 96) in the 0-2.1V range and outputs a proportional analog signal on DAC0 (PORTA2, pin 97) in the 0-3.0V range.  Here’s a screenshot of the results taken using my RPI IOBoard and LabVIEW interfaces.  The bottom graph (red line) shows the sine wave signal being generated by the IOBoard and connected to the XMega’s ADC input.  The top graph (white line) shows the scaled sine wave being measured at the XMega’s DAC output:

XMEGA ADC-DAC Pass-through Test

You may be wondering: why the difference in input and output voltage ranges?  Well, here’s one additional problem I see with the XMega: Vcc (max 3.6V) is not directly available for use as a reference for the A to D conversion, only Vcc/1.6V (which is 3.3/1.6 = 2.0625V, in this case).  Now you can select AVcc (typically tied together with Vcc, perhaps via a filter) as a reference for the DACs, although according to the hardware datasheet, both ADC and DAC reference sources are limited to AVcc-0.6V, or 2.7V on a 3.3V source (which is what you get on the XPlained development board).

Now in testing these specifications, I have found the ADC limit to be fixed as stated, although when I’ve selected AVcc as the reference for the DACs I’ve seen max outputs reach just over 3V.  Honestly, I don’t know what prevents the XMegas from using Vcc as a reference, as this is commonly done with ATMegas.  Oh well!  You just may need to throw in a voltage divider and/or op-amp to compensate.

One other issue I noticed was noise in the ADC signal when measuring values near 0V.  This could be an issue with how I’ve setup my code, or with some other aspect of my hardware.  But you can see this effect in the slightly garbled low points of the sine wave shown in white in the above screenshot.  I guess the bottom line is that I’ll need to play around with this a bit more.  (NOTE: I believe we have solved this issue; it is a problem with the XMega chip itself.  The solution is to use a lower (e.g. 1V) reference for the DAC.  See comments section below.)  Apparently there are also calibration registers for the ADC, and some pretty advanced tweaks you can make.  Take a look at this page on configuring and tuning the XMega ADCs – it’s been a great help to me already.

Conclusions

Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic about the XMega and the XPlained development board.  I’ve encountered a couple of minor issues, and the list of problems in the errata section of the datasheet is frighteningly long.  I should also point out that a previous version of the XPlained, the XPlain, apparently had quite a few more serious issues.  You’ll find references and pictures of the XPlain if you do a bit of Googling.  I’m not sure who’s still selling it, but I can tell you that despite the picture and the name, Digi-Key is shipping the newer XPlained, not the old XPlain (this is where I got mine).

So I still say that the XMega a great leap forward by comparison with the ATMega series.  The only question left is what to do next?

I’ve been thinking about going further with this ADC-DAC application and creating an audio compressor and volume control.  You see, I’ve got this cheap portable speaker that I use with my Blackberry for listening to MP3s.  The trouble is, there’s no remote, and each track seems to play at a slightly different volume.  So I’m thinking of using the XMega to receive IR signals from a remote and then adjust the volume accordingly (by scaling the ADC result before sending it to the DAC).  And at the same time, it could automatically adjust volume, based on the incoming audio signal, within a certain range.  This is called compression.  My setup would require a bit of analog work to get the signals into the correct voltage ranges before and after processing, but a couple of op-amps would likely do the trick without much work.

That said, I’m open to other ideas.  Has anybody out there got suggestions for projects?

Fun with Failure

Have you ever come up with a neat idea?  An idea for some really useful sort of device?  And then you find out that it is, at least for now, a physical impossibility?

I had just such a neat idea this week.  At least, I thought it was a neat idea.  You see, for the past few weeks, I’ve been traveling around the country interviewing for various different jobs.  One of these jobs is with John Deere in Waterloo, Iowa.  Now for those of you who don’t know, it gets cold up in Iowa.  Their average January temperature is a mere 16°F.  I was imagining myself leaving work after a long day, going out into the cold, and then shivering in a very cold Jeep Liberty (my car) for the drive home.  So I’ve been thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if I could somehow heat my car while it’s outside?

A Solar-Heated Jeep?

Well, I don’t want to run a heater using my car battery, for obvious reasons.  However, I have this nifty 90W solar panel that I’m not really using at the moment (although it is acting as a glorified cellphone charger, and has been put to good use in the past).  Perhaps I could mount this to the top of my Jeep and use it to run a small heater.  My only question – would 90W be enough power to effect a substantial (20-30°F) temperature rise?

Initially, my gut feeling said no.  For one thing, from experience I know that my 90W photovoltaic (PV) panel will never produce 90W if mounted horizontally on the roof of my car.  Even on a perfectly clear and sunny winter day, it won’t be getting strong, direct sunlight.  So perhaps I could expect 60W at best, but on a cloudy day I might see less than half of that.  But more importantly, on a sunny day, wouldn’t I already be trapping more than 90W via my windows and the greenhouse effect?  Because if so, this effect has never produced a particularly warm interior.

Of course there’s only one way to answer these questions.  Science!  Particularly, the study of thermodynamics.  I’ve taken a couple of courses on the subject, but I still had to refer to my book for this formula, derived from the first law of thermodynamics:

An equation for the rate of temperature change for an object at a given power input/output.

This says that the rate of change of an object’s temperature (dT/dt) is equal to the power (P) absorbed or released by that object divided by its mass and its specific heat.  So for my first experiment, I decided to heat the interior of my Jeep by idling the engine and turning the heat to full-blast.  I then hopped out and remotely measured the interior temperature during cooling.  How did I accomplish this?  I temporarily re-purposed my Doom Box, which now contains both a LM34 temperature sensor and an XBee wireless transceiver.  Here’s a snapshot of the latest PCB revision, powered by an ATMega644P MCU:

Doom Box PCB (Rev3)

So here’s what the temperatures looked like during my first test.  The yellow vertical line below indicates when the engine was shutdown and cooling began:

Test #1 Graph

I should note that the Jeep’s temperature measurement was filtered by a 40 second (eight sample) moving average filter implemented within LabVIEW.  Also, the internal temperature sensor was placed on the floor in front of the back seats.  Exterior temperature measurements were taken manually using a digital thermometer and are represented by a linear trend-line shown in red above.

So during this test, my jeep was outdoors, parked in the shade, from 3-5PM.  You’ll notice that during this time the exterior temperature dropped by about ten degrees as the sun started to set.  However, the temperature inside the Jeep dropped slightly faster, as you would expect.  There was also very little wind during this test.

Now to apply the formula!  The drop in temperature between t = 4000s and t = 6000s is easily determined from the graph: 4.7°F or 2.6°C.  The trick is in determining values for mass and specific heat.  For this first test I decided to simply approximate the mass of air and metal within the car.  I calculated that the Jeep contained about 4kg of air at a cp of 1005J/kg-K as well as about 20kg of steel (e.g. in the seats and wheel) at a cp of 490J/kg-K (it’s pretty interesting to note that air has a higher specific heat than most metals).  I decided to ignore small pieces like plastic and seat stuffing, as well as everything under the hood (an assumption which proved later to be somewhat stupid).

So plugging all of that into the equation above yields a power loss of just about 18W.

Well now, eighteen watts is pretty surprising.  I wasn’t expecting losses to be that low for an interior-exterior temperature difference of 25°F.  This called for a second round of testing.  This time, I moved my Jeep into an insulated, closed garage.  Doing this allowed me to get rid of temperature variations due to solar radiation and wind.  It also prevented rapid changes in exterior temperature.  I then inserted a controllable heat source (an old laptop) into the car, located a few feet away from my interior temperature sensor.  The laptop was configured in such a way as to draw about 46W via a 120VAC inverter.  In theory, this level of power should have raised the Jeep’s internal temperature by about 12°F per hour.  Did it?  Well, I think the graph below speaks for itself:

Test #2 Graph

Yep, that’s definitely a failure.  It turns out that an input of 46W could only raise the car’s interior temperature to about five degrees (F) above ambient.  So the bottom line is my 90W solar panel isn’t going to have much of an effect.

So what went wrong with that first test?  Why did I calculate the need for only 18W?  Two reasons.  First, I didn’t account for all the residual heat in the engine compartment.  This helped keep the Jeep’s interior temperature higher than it would have been otherwise.  I likely also underestimated both the mass and heat capacity of the car’s interior.  In my defense, it’s not exactly an easy thing to determine.  In thermodynamics classes, you get problems about isolated, well-defined blocks of aluminum and ideal, constant heaters.  In reality, you get an ill-defined mixture of materials and variable heat sources.

Just out of curiosity, I used the first few minutes of my second test to make a better guess at the Jeep’s mass and specific heat.  In five minutes (300s), the temperature rose by about 0.7°F or 0.4°C.  Assuming this rise came only from heat input by the laptop, the term mcp = 34,500J/K.  That’s actually not too far from my initial guess for the first test, which worked out to 13,800J/K.  What this likely means then is that in my initial outside test, the Jeep was losing about 45W instead of just 18W.  But I’m also guessing that a lot of heat was still coming in from the engine compartment.

Anyway, I hope these results aren’t too confusing.  I’m not making any guarantees about the correctness or validity of my methods or assumptions.  What I’m really trying to say here is that you’ll need a lot more than 90W of PV panels to heat your car’s interior.  That, I can say with confidence.  I’d love to hear comments on this, particularly if you’re an expert in thermodynamics!  Where have I gone wrong here? 🙂

Better Than Watching Paint Dry

Quick, what’s made of glass, filled with tar, and is considered by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the longest continuously-running laboratory experiment?  No, this isn’t a memorial for the Gulf Oil Spill; it’s the famous Pitch Drop Experiment!

University of Queensland Pitch Drop Experiment (battery for size comparison)

Seriously, this is no joke (although it did win the Ig Nobel Prize in October of 2005).  This test was designed by Thomas Parnell, a professor at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, to measure the viscosity (resistance to flow) of tar pitch.

Back in 1927, Professor Parnell heated a bit of pitch (which is normally fairly solid and brittle) and poured it into a sealed glass funnel.  It was then allowed to settle for three years.  (This probably constitutes another record for the longest experimental setup.)  In 1930, the funnel was opened and pitch came bursting forth at the astonishing rate of roughly one drop per decade.  That’s a frequency of, uh, about three nanohertz.

Professor Parnell died in 1948, having only seen two drops fall.  Actually, to be clear, no one has ever actually watched a drop fall.  Despite being monitored on a webcam, the most recent drop was not captured due to technical problems.

The results?  Well obviously it’s still a work in progress – there’s enough pitch in that funnel to last for another hundred years or so.  However, the data so far indicates that tar pitch has a viscosity 100,000,000,000 times that of water.  That’s one tough fluid.

So if you’re looking for more exciting science experiments that’ll run for longer than you’ll be alive, check out Oxford’s Electric Bell and the Beverly Clock.  Good times, good times.