SCiO “Pocket Molecular Scanner” Teardown

Some of you may remember the SCiO, originally a Kickstarter darling back in 2014 that promised people a pocket-sized micro spectrometer. It was claimed to be able to scan and determine the composition of everything from fruits and produce to your own body. The road from successful crowdsourcing to production was uncertain and never free from skepticism regarding the promised capabilities, but the folks at [Sparkfun] obtained a unit and promptly decided to tear it down to see what was inside, and share what they found.

The main feature inside the SCiO is the optical sensor, which consists of a custom-made NIR spectrometer. By analyzing the different wavelengths that reflect off an object, the unit can make judgments about what the object is made of. The SCiO was clearly never built to be disassembled, but [Sparkfun] pulls everything apart and provides some interesting photos of a custom-made optical unit with an array of different sensors, various filters, apertures, and a microlens array.

It’s pretty interesting to see inside the SCiO’s hardware, which unfortunately required destructive disassembly of the unit in question. The basic concept of portable spectroscopy is solid, as shown by projects such as the Farmcorder which is intended to measure plant health, and the DIY USB spectrometer which uses a webcam as the sensor.

Anyone Need a Little Fuming Nitric Acid?

If there’s a chemical with a cooler name than “fuming nitric acid,” we can’t think of it. Nearly pure nitric acid is useful stuff, especially if you’re in the business of making rocket fuels and explosives. But the low-end nitric acid commonly available tops out at about 68% pure, so if you want the good stuff, you’ll have to synthesize fuming nitric acid yourself. (And by “good stuff”, we mean be very careful with the resulting product.)

Fuming nitric acid comes in two colors – red fuming nitric acid (RFNA), which is about 90% pure and has some dissolved nitrogen oxides, giving it its reddish-brown color. White fuming nitric acid (WFNA) is the good stuff — more than 99% pure. Either one is rough stuff to work with — you don’t want to wear latex or nitrile gloves while using it. It’s not clear what [BarsMonster] needs the WFNA for, although he does mention etching some ICs. The synthesis is pretty straightforward, if a bit dangerous. An excess of sulfuric acid is added to potassium nitrate, and more or less pure nitric acid is distilled away from the resulting potassium sulfate. Careful temperature control is important, and [BarsMonster] seems to have gotten a good yield despite running out of ice.

We don’t feature too many straight chemistry hacks around here, but this one seemed gnarly enough to be interesting. We did have a Hackaday Prize entry a while back on improvements to the Haber process for producing ammonia, which curiously is the feedstock for commercial nitric acid production processes.

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Sort Out Chemical Storage For Your Shop

There is one constant in the world of hardware hacker’s workshops, be they a private workshop in your garage or a public hackspace, and it goes something like this:

Everybody’s a safety expert in whatever it is they are working with, right up until the accident.

In other words, it is very tempting to harbour a cavalier attitude to something that either you are familiar with or the hazards of which you do not understand, and this breeds an environment in which mishaps become a distinct possibility.

As hardware people, we are familiar with basic tool safety or electrical safety. The chances are that we’ve had it drummed into us at some time in our growing up, by a lab supervisor, a workshop teacher, or a parent. That you as readers and I as writer have survived this long is testament enough to the success of that education. But what about those areas in which we may not have received such an education, those things which we either encounter rarely or seem harmless enough that their safety needn’t be our concern? Chemicals, for example: everything from glue through solvents and soldering consumables to PCB chemicals and even paint. It all seems safe enough, what could possibly go wrong? The answer to that question is probably something most of us would prefer never to find out, so it’s worth looking in to how a well-run workshop can manage its chemicals in as safe a manner as possible.

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Go Small, Get Big: The Hack that Revolutionized Bioscience

Few people outside the field know just how big bioscience can get. The public tends to think of fields like physics and astronomy, with their huge particle accelerators and massive telescopes, as the natural expressions of big science. But for decades, biology has been getting bigger, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Specialized labs built around the automation equipment that enables modern pharmaceutical research would dazzle even the most jaded CERN physicist, with fleets of robot arms moving labware around in an attempt to find the Next Big Drug.

I’ve written before on big biology and how to get more visibility for the field into STEM programs. But how exactly did biology get big? What enabled biology to grow beyond a rack of test tubes to the point where experiments with millions of test occasions are not only possible but practically required? Was it advances in robots, or better detection methodologies? Perhaps it was a breakthrough in genetic engineering?

Nope. Believe it or not, it was a small block of plastic with some holes drilled in it. This is the story of how the microtiter plate allowed bioscience experiments to be miniaturized to the point where hundreds or thousands of tests can be done at a time.

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Graphene from Graphite by Electrochemical Exfoliation

Graphene is an interesting material, but making enough of the stuff to do something useful can be a little tough. That’s why we’re always on the lookout for new methods, like this electrochemical process for producing graphene in bulk.

You probably know that graphene is a molecular monolayer of carbon atoms linked in hexagonal arrays. Getting to that monolayer is a difficult proposition, but useful bits of graphene can be created by various mechanical and chemical treatments of common graphite. [The Thought Emporium]’s approach to harvesting graphene from graphite is a two-step process starting with electrochemical exfoliation. Strips of thin graphite foil are electrolyzed in a bath of ferrous sulfate, resulting in the graphite delaminating and flaking off into the electrolyte. After filtering and cleaning, the almost graphene is further exfoliated in an ultrasonic cleaner. The result is gram quantity yields with very little work and at low cost.

There’s plenty of effort going into new methods of creating graphene these days, whether by barely controlled explosions or superheating soybean oil. But will graphene be the Next Big Thing? The jury is still out on that.

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Grow Your Own Tin Crystals

[The Plutonium Bunny] saw homegrown tin crystals on YouTube and reckoned he could do better—those crystals were flimsy and couldn’t stand up outside of the solution in which they were grown. Having previously tackled copper crystals, he applied the same procedure to tin.

Beginning with a 140 ml baby food jar filled with a solution of tin II chloride, 90 grams per liter, with a small amount of HCl as the electrolyte. A wire at the bottom of the jar was connected to a blob of tin and served as the anode, while the cathode, a loop of tin, stuck down from above. A LM317-based adjustable voltage regulator circuit was used to manage the power running through the solution. Because [The Plutonium Bunny]’s technique involves days or even weeks of very low current, he used six diodes to drop the circuit’s voltage from 1.5 V to 0.25 V, giving him around 13 mA.

His first attempt seemed to go well and he got some nice shiny crystal faces, but he couldn’t get the current bellow 10 mA without it dropping to the point where no tin was depositing. Rather than reset the experiment he made some changes to the project: he changed the solution by removing 30 ml of the electrolyte and topping it off with water. He also made a gentle agitator out of a DC motor and flattened plastic tube from a pen, powering it with another low-voltage LM317 circuit so he could get the lowest RPM possible.

With this new setup [The Plutonium Bunny] began to get much  better results, proving his hypothesis that low current with a lower concentration of Sn2+ was the ticket for large crystal growth. We featured his copper crystal experiments last year and he’s clearly making good progress! Video after the break.

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Fluorescence Microscopy Meets DIY Fluid Management

Fluorescence microscopy is an optical technique that incorporates fluorescence or phosphorescence (as opposed to reflection and absorption) in order to study the properties of organic and inorganic substances. Not a stranger to bringing DIY techniques into the lab, [Philip] is using 3D printing resources to advance science and delight interns from labs everywhere.

In fluorescence microscopy, a huge limiting factor that decreases the amount of data that can be gleaned from a single sample is the number of targets that can be labeled with fluorescent tags. However, overlap in the spectral emissions of fluorophores limits the fluorophores that can be used side-by-side. This means that only around four targets can be labeled with fluorescent tags in a typical setup, with ten being the absolute maximum if careful spectral demixing is done. However, in a single sample, there might be a few hundred components. Clearly, we’re off by an order of magnitude (or more).

However, researchers are smart. One current solution is to label targets in a sequential manner with probe signal nullification steps in between. Ideally, probes are introduced in sequential without moving the sample off of the microscope. After imaging, the probes can be removed, allowing the number of labeled targets to be limited only to the number of rounds of probe replacement. And, with clever ‘barcoding’ schemes, the returns from each round can even scale exponentially, rather than linearly.

But, to accomplish this feat, a single sample must be processed through the labeling and stripping steps repeatedly. It’s not uncommon to do this by hand, consisting of many hours of exceptionally tedious work. That’s where [Philip] comes in. By using a 3D printer like Cartesian robot, [Philip] is automating the labeling and stripping steps resulting in happy interns and ultimately a more precise product. Rather than spending a few tens of thousands on a commercial machine, you can find all of [Philip’s] design files in his GitHub repo and make one for ~ $1k. Ready for more? We’ve got your back.

Video after the break.

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