Alexander Pozhitkov is a California-based scientist with a home workspace designed for thinking "outside the black box." When he is away from his day job at a cancer research hospital, he enjoys exploring microcontrollers, sensor technologies, amateur radio, and analog electronics. In addition to handy tools for electronics projects, his workspace serves as a chemistry lab and a machine shop.
A workspace for outside the black box thinking

What do you do for work?
I am a scientist (molecular biology, bioinformatics) working at a cancer research hospital. Engineering is my side business, in which we design and manufacture research equipment. Electronics is a vital part for our devices.
Tell us about your electronics workspace. How would you describe it? Where is it located?
I have a "multidisciplinary" workspace that combines electronics and chemistry lab as well as a machine shop. The space is an an add-on building attached to my house. I’ve had this space for two years. Before my lab was distributed all over the house.
When you designed and/or set up your space, what were your requirements and goals?
My goal has always been to create a "mini research institute" whereby i could do various projects. Some projects are a part of my business, while other are pure research inspired by curiosity. Projects solely based on curiosity are hard to do in an academic setting, where you would have to convince faculty members, fight an uphill battle, etc. At my own "mini research institute" myself and my colleagues can do whatever we find interesting!
What are your technical interests? What kind of projects do you work on in your workspace?
My technical interests revolve primarily around analog electronics, whereby physical principles play a bigger role than software. I love vacuum and Nixie tubes, amateur radio and sensors. At the same time, having a smart digital component can be a lot of fun too. However, with CPUs and MCUs, I have a special relationship. I want to know the lowest possible level of operation, registers, modes. Assembly/C-type stuff! In other words, having a black box library that "does it all" is rather boring for me.
What sort of equipment and tools do you have in your workspace?
I have a soldering station, Rigol function generator, Siglent oscilloscope, power supplies, variac and a coil winder. Also, I have a VFD (for running three-phase motors), a BIG street-pole transformer, drill press, band saw and a grinder. Finally, I have lab glassware, burners and a high-temperature oxy torch.
What do you consider to be your most important or valued piece of equipment or tool and why?
From the electronics standpoint, I believe the most valuable piece is the Siglent scope.That's a marvelous machine: all sorts of triggering modes, math, Fourier, RMS, stats. Also, very intuitive to use. The manual was literally two pages.
Is there anything special or unique about your space?
My workspace is a full-scale laboratory. I have established water plumbing and natural gas. Also, my lab is connected to a ~20 m antenna tower, which stands on my property. The room has an interesting history too. The previous owner was an engineer at NBC; it was his amateur radio studio. I found some fun things here like a vacuum tube automobile radio receiver (superhet) with an electromechanical DC/AC converter. (I fixed it; it works great here in my workshop.)
Pozhitkov workspace includes machine tools

Are you planning anything new for your space?
I am planning to expand my amateur radio equipment to go from UHF into HF bands. One day, I will talk to Europe via skywave! As a long-term plan, I am working on establishing high vacuum equipment in my lab. Who doesn't want to play with electron beams after all?
Do you have a favorite electronics-related project? What did you build and why? What did you learn?
My favorite project was development of a liquid dielectric sensor. We were developing a piece of research equipment for a client, whereby the level of deionized water (dielectric) had to be controlled in an enclosed small stainless-steel compartment at elevated temperature. The system must have been extremely robust and rather inexpensive. After numerous experiments, we discovered that simple floaters or optical sensors were unacceptable. Going back to physical principles, we ended up creating an antenna inside of the compartment that changed its AC impedance upon contact with the deionized water. The impedance was measured by several op-amps in conjunction with a detector. FETs did the heavy work of opening and closing solenoid valves.
The stunning aspect of this project was the sheer inadequacy of the off-the-shelf solutions: either too expensive, too big or too fragile. Understanding physical principles did the job in the end. Feels very satisfying!
Are you currently working on an electronics or programming project?
Currently, I'm finishing a 10-digit Nixie tube numeric display. It provides two digital inputs: one is the number to display, the other one is the choice of the tube to glow.  It will be ultimately connected to some digital output. 
I started this project with my son to introduce him to electronics and to show him that electronics is physics-based activity.  We have calculated and wound our step up transformer, calculated the frequency of the multivibrator. Also, we did not want to waste the energy into the ballast anode resistors, so we decided to restrict Nixie tube current by an inductor, given that they glow pulsed. For switching cathodes, we use high-voltage transistors and for anodes optocouplers. Although Elektor has published many Nixie-tubes-based projects, our goal was not the display per se, but rather learning experience in the fundamentals of electronics.
Do you have a dream project?
My dream project is conversion of electrical energy directly into biomass. Solar energy, especially in California, is ubiquitous. But you cannot fill your stomach with electricity! Now I am thinking of a next step: how to convert electrical energy into biomass. There are attempts seen in the literature; however, the results are far from practical. The project will likely require extensive research and development of a bioreactor with all sorts of controls.
Do you have any tips for other engineers or makers who are thinking of putting together a workspace?
My advice is to always seek fundamental understanding of the system you are working with, be it a sensor, processor, etc. Heavy reliance on black box pre-made solutions makes life easy; however, with this approach one can only go so far. A truly revolutionary breakthrough, in my opinion, is only possible when thinking and operating outside of the "black box".
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