Microfluidics “Frogger” is a Game Changer for DIY Biology


See those blue and green dots in the GIF? Those aren’t pixels on an LCD display. Those are actual drops of liquid moving across a special PCB. The fact that the droplets are being manipulated to play a microfluidics game of “Frogger” only makes OpenDrop v 2.0 even cooler.

Lab biology is mainly an exercise in liquid handling – transferring a little of solution X into some of solution Y with a pipette. Manual pipetting is tedious, error prone, and very low throughput, but automated liquid handling workstations run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This makes [Urs Gaudenz]’s “OpenDrop” microfluidics project a potential game changer for the nascent biohacking movement by offering cheap and easy desktop liquid handling.

Details are scarce on the OpenDrop website as to exactly how this works, but diving into the literature cited reveals that the pads on the PCB are driven to high voltages to attract the droplets. The PCB itself is covered with a hydrophobic film – Saran wrap that has been treated with either peanut oil or Rain-X. Moving the droplets is a simple matter of controlling which pads are charged. Splitting drops is possible, as is combining them – witness the “frog” getting run over by the blue car.

There is a lot of cool work being done in microfluidics, and we’re looking forward to see what comes out of this open effort. We’ve covered other open source efforts in microfluidics before, but this one seems so approachable that it’s sure to capture someone’s imagination.

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Lost PLA Casting Brings out the Beauty of Macromolecules

Biochemistry texts are loaded with images of the proteins, nucleic acids, and other biopolymers that make up life. Depictions of the 3D structure of macromolecules based on crystallography and models of their most favorable thermodynamic conformations are important tools. And some are just plain beautiful, which is why artist [Mike Tyka] has taken to using lost-PLA casting to create sculptures of macromolecules from bronze, copper, and glass.

We normally don’t cover strictly artistic projects here at Hackaday, although we do make exceptions, such as when the art makes a commentary on technology’s place in society. In [Mike]’s case, not only is his art beautiful and dripping with nerd street cred, but his techniques can be translated to other less artsy projects.

kcsa_5_bigFor “Tears”, his sculpture of the enzyme lysozyme shown in the banner image, [Mike] started with crystallographic data that pinpoints every peptide residue in the protein. A model is created for the 3D printer, with careful attention paid to how the finished print can be split apart to allow casting. Clear PLA filament is used for the positive because it burns out of the mold better than colored plastic. The prints are solvent smoothed, sprues and air vents added, and the positive is coated with a plaster mix appropriate for the sculpture medium before the plastic is melted out and the mold is ready for casting.

[Mike]’s sculpture page is well worth a look even if you have no interest in macromolecules or casting techniques. And if you ever think you’ll want to start lost-PLA casting, be sure to look over his build logs for plenty of tips and tricks. “Tears” is executed in bronze and glass, and [Mike]’s description is full of advice on how to handle casting such vastly different media.

Thanks to [Dave Z.] for the tip.

Extracting Sounds With Acid And UV

Toaplan was a Japanese video game developer in the 80s and early 90s, most famous for Zero Wing, the source of the ancient ‘All Your Base’ meme. Memeology has come a long way since the Something Awful forums and a pre-Google Internet, but MAME hasn’t. Despite the completionist nature of MAME aficionados, there are still four Toaplan games with no sound in the current version of MAME.

The sound files for these games is something of a holy grail for connoisseurs of old arcade games, and efforts to extract these sounds have been fruitless for three decades. Now, finally, these sounds have been released with the help of sulfuric acid and microscopes.

The sounds for Fire SharkVimanaTeki Paki, and Ghox were stored on their respective arcade boards inside the ROM for a microcontroller, separate from the actual game ROM. Since the fuse bits of this microcontroller were set, the only way to extract the data was decapsulation. This messy and precise work was done by CAPS0ff, who melted away the epoxy coating of the chip, revealing the microcontroller core.

Even without a microscope, the quarry of this hunt was plainly visible, but there was still no way to read out the data. The built-in read prevention bit was set, and the only way to clear that was to un-set a fuse. This was done by masking everything on the chip except the suspected fuse, putting it under UV, and checking if the fuse switched itself to an unburnt state.

The data extraction worked, and now the MAME project has the sound data for games that would have otherwise been forgotten to time. A great success, even if the games are generic top-down shooters.

Flexible, Sensitive Sensors from Silly Putty and Graphene

Everyone’s favorite viscoelastic non-Newtonian fluid has a new use, besides bouncing, stretching, and getting caught in your kid’s hair. Yes, it’s Silly Putty, and when mixed with graphene it turns out to make a dandy force sensor.

To be clear, [Jonathan Coleman] and his colleagues at Trinity College in Dublin aren’t buying the familiar plastic eggs from the local toy store for their experiments. They’re making they’re own silicone polymers, but their methods (listed in this paywalled article from the journal Science) are actually easy to replicate. They just mix silicone oil, or polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), with boric acid, and apply a little heat. The boron compound cross-links the PDMS and makes a substance very similar to the bouncy putty. The lab also synthesizes its own graphene by sonicating graphite in a solvent and isolating the graphene with centrifugation and filtration; that might be a little hard for the home gamer to accomplish, but we’ve covered a DIY synthesis before, so it should be possible.

With the raw materials in hand, it’s a simple matter of mixing and kneading, and you’ve got a flexible, stretchable sensor. [Coleman] et al report using sensors fashioned from the mixture to detect the pulse in the carotid artery and even watch the footsteps of a spider. It looks like fun stuff to play with, and we can see tons of applications for flexible, inert strain sensors like these.

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Thermoelectric Paint Opens Prospect Of Easier Energy Harvesting

We will all be used to the thermoelectric effect in our electronic devices. The property of a junction of dissimilar conductors to either generate electricity from a difference in temperature (the Seebeck effect), or heating or cooling the junction (the Peltier effect). Every time we use a thermocouple or one of those mini beer fridges, we’re taking advantage of it.

Practical commercial thermoelectric arrays take the form of a grid of semiconductor junctions wired in series, with a cold side and a hot side. For a Peltier array the cold side drops in temperature and the hot side rises in response to applied electric current, while for a Seebeck array a current is generated in response to temperature difference between the two sides. They have several disadvantages though; they are not cheap, they are of a limited size, they can only be attached to flat surfaces, and they are only as good as their thermal bond can be made.

Researchers in Korea have produced an interesting development in this field that may offer significant improvements over the modules, they have published a paper describing a thermoelectric compound which can be painted on to a surface. The paint contains particles of bismuth telluride (Bi2Te3), and an energy density of up to 4mW per square centimetre is claimed.

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No-Etch Circuit Board Printing

If you’ve ever tried to build a printed circuit board from home, you know how much of a pain it can be. There are buckets of acid to lug around, lots of waiting and frustration, and often times the quality of the circuits that can be made traditionally with a home setup isn’t that great in the end. Luckily, [Rich] has come up with a way that eliminates multiple prints and the acid needed for etching.

His process involves using a laser printer (as opposed to an inkjet printer, as is tradition) to get a layer of silver adhesive to stick to a piece of paper. The silver adheres to the toner like glitter sticks to Elmer’s glue, and allows a single pass of a laser printer to make a reliable circuit. From there, the paper can be fastened to something more solid, and components can be reflow soldered to it.

[Rich] does post several warnings about this method though. The silver is likely not healthy, so avoid contact with it, and when it’s applied to the toner an indeterminate brown smoke is released, which is also likely not healthy. Warnings aside, though, this is a great method for making home-made PCBs, especially if you don’t want tubs of acid lying around the house, however useful.

Thanks to [Chris] for the tip!

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Diamond Batteries That Last For Millennia

Like many industrialized countries, in the period after the Second World War the United Kingdom made significant investments in the field of nuclear reactors. British taxpayers paid for reactors for research, the military, and for nuclear power.

Many decades later that early crop of reactors has now largely been decommissioned. Power too cheap to meter turned into multi-billion pound bills for safely coping with the challenges posed by many different types of radioactive waste generated by the dismantling of a nuclear reactor, and as the nuclear industry has made that journey it in turn has spawned a host of research projects based on the products of the decommissioning work.

One such project has been presented by a team at Bristol University; their work is on the property of diamonds in generating a small electrical current when exposed to radioactive emissions. Unfortunately their press release and video does not explain the mechanism involved and our Google-fu has failed to deliver, but if we were to hazard a guess we’d ask them questions about whether the radioactivity changes the work function required to release electrons from the diamond, allowing the electricity to be harvested through a contact potential difference. Perhaps our physicist readers can enlighten us in the comments.

So far their prototype uses a nickel-63 source, but they hope to instead take carbon-14 from the huge number of stockpiled graphite blocks from old reactors, and use it to create radioactive diamonds that require no external source. Since the output of the resulting cells will be in proportion to their radioactivity their life will be in the same order of their radioactive half-life. 5730 years for half-capacity in the case of carbon-14.

Of course, it is likely that the yield of electricity will not be high, with tiny voltages and currents this may not represent a free energy miracle. But it will be of considerable interest to the designers of ultra-low-maintenance long-life electronics for science, the space industry, and medical implants.

We’ve put their video below the break. It’s a straightforward explanation of the project, though sadly since it’s aimed at the general public it’s a little short on some of the technical details. Still, it’s one to watch.

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