To Deal with Plastic Trash, All You Need is Bugs

Outlawed now in some places, or only available to tote your purchases at a ridiculous premium, the billions of “T-shirt” bags used every year present a serious waste management problem. Whether blowing across the landscape like synthetic tumbleweeds, floating in the ocean as ersatz jellyfish, or clogging up municipal waste streams, finding a way to deal with them could really make a difference. And finding a bug that eats polyethylene and poops antifreeze might be a great first step in bioremediating the mess.

As with many scientific discoveries, learning about the useful and unexpected eating habits of the larval stage of the Greater Wax Moth Galleria mellonella can be chalked up to serendipity. It began when biochemist [Federica Bertocchini] cleaned a wax moth infestation from her beehive. She put the beeswax-loving pests in a plastic bag, later finding they had chewed their way out. Intrigued, she and [Paolo Bombelli] ran some experiments using the bugs. They showed the mechanism wasn’t just mechanical and that the worms were digesting the polyethylene, to the tune of 92 mg consumed for 100 worms in 12 hours. That’s about 1,000 times faster than bioremediation with bacteria.

Furthermore, the bugs excrete ethylene glycol, a useful industrial chemical, in the process. Finally, to see if the process can scale, the researchers showed that a homogenate of wax moth larvae could digest PE sheets. This could lead to an industrial process if the enzymes involved can be isolated and engineered. The letter describing the process is a fascinating read.

While this one may not a classically hackish way to deal with plastic recycling, the potential for this method is huge. We look forward to seeing where this goes.

[Images: César Hernández/CSIC]

OSM (Pronounced Awesome) Hardware Makes DNA in Space

OSM stands for Oligonucleotide Synthesizer designed for use in Microgravity, meaning that it’s a device that makes arbitrary DNA strands (of moderate length) in space. Cool eh? I’ve been working on this project for the last eight months with a wonderful team of fellow hackers as part of the Stanford Student Space Initiative, and I’d like to share what we’re doing, what we’ve already done, and where we’re going.

Why space? Well, first of all, space is cool. But more seriously, access to arbitrary DNA in space could accelerate research in a plethora of fields, and the ability to genetically engineer bacteria to produce substances (say on a martian colony) could mean the difference between death and a life-saving shot. In short, it’s hard to predict the exact DNA one might need for research or practical use before hand.

First, as Hackaday tends to be a little light on biology terminology, we need to get a little vocabulary out of the way to grease the ways of communication. If you have a Ph.D. in synthetic biology, you might want to skip this section. Otherwise, here are five quick terms that will make your brain bigger so stay with me!

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Put Plasma to Work with this Basic Toolkit

Fair warning: [Justin Atkin]’s video on how to make plasma, fusors, and magnetrons is a bit long. But it’s worth watching because he’s laying a foundation for a series of experiments with plasma, which looks like it will be a lot of fun.

After a nice primer on the physics of plasma, [Justin] goes into some detail about the basic tools of the trade: high voltage and high vacuum. A couple of scrap microwave oven transformers, a bridge rectifier, and a capacitor provide the 2000 volts DC output needed. It’s a workable setup, but we’ll take issue with the incredibly dangerous “scariac” autotransformer, popularized by [The King of Random]. It seems foolish to risk a painful death mixing water and line current when a 20-amp variac can be had for $100.

A decent vacuum pump will be needed too, of course; perhaps the money you can save by building your own Sprengel vacuum pump can be put toward the electrical budget. Vacuum chambers are cheap too — Mason jars with ground rims and holes drilled for accessories like spark plugs. Magnets mounted below one chamber formed a rudimentary magnetron, thankfully without the resonating cavities needed for producing microwaves. Another experiment attempted vapor deposition of titanium nitride.

It’s all pretty cool stuff, and we’re looking forward to more details and results. While we wait, feel free to check out the tons of plasma projects we’ve featured, from tiny plasma speakers to giant plasma tubes.

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Easy DIY Microfluidics

Microfluidics, the precise control and manipulation of small volumes of liquids, is heavily used in any field that does small-scale experiments with expensive reagents (We’re looking at you, natural sciences.) However, the process commonly used to create microfluidic devices is time and experience intensive. But, worry not: the Uppsala iGEM team has created Chipgineering: A manual for manufacturing a microfluidic chip.

Used while developing everything from inkjet print heads to micro-thermal technologies, microfluidic systems are generally useful. Specifically, Uppsala’s microfluidic device performs a simple biological procedure, a heat-shock transformation, as a proof of concept. Moreover, Uppsala uses commonly available materials: ready to pour PDMS (a biologically compatible silicon) and a 3D printed mold. Additionally, while the team used a resin 3D printer, there seems to be little reason that a fused deposition modeling (FDM) printer wouldn’t work just as well. Particularly interesting is how they sandwich their PDMS between two plates, potentially allowing easy removal and replacement of reagents without external mechanisms. And, to put the cherry on top, Uppsala’s well-illustrated documentation is a joy to read.

This isn’t the first time we’ve covered microfluidic devices, and if you’re still in the prototyping phase, these microfluidic LEGO-like blocks might be what you need. But, if you prefer macrofluidics, this waste shark that aims to clean our oceans might be more your style.

High Vacuum with Mercury and Glassware

If you want to build your own vacuum tubes, whether amplifying, Nixie or cathode-ray, you’re going to need a vacuum. It’s in the name, after all. For a few thousand bucks, you can probably pick up a used turbo-molecular pump. But how did they make high vacuums back in the day? How did Edison evacuate his light bulbs?

Strangely enough, you could do worse than turn to YouTube for the answer: [Cody] demonstrates building a Sprengel vacuum pump (video embedded below). As tipster [BrightBlueJim] wrote us, this project has everything: high vacuum, home-made torch glassware, and large quantities of toxic heavy metals. (Somehow [Jim] missed out on the high-voltage from the static electricity generated by sliding mercury down glass tubes for days on end.)

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Measuring Tiny Masses Acoustically

How do you measure the mass of something really, really tiny? Like fish-embryo tiny. There aren’t many scales with the sensitivity and the resolution to make meaningful measurements in the nanogram range, so you’ve got to turn to other methods, like measuring changes in the resonant frequency of a glass tube. And that turns out to be cheap and easy for the home gamer to reproduce.

In a recent scholarly paper, [William Grover] et al from the University of California Riverside outline the surprisingly simple and clever method of weighing zebrafish embryos, an important model organism used in all sorts of developmental biology and environmental research. [Grover]’s method is a scaled-up version of a suspended microchannel resonator (SMR), a microelectromechanical device that can measure the mass of single cells or even weigh a virus particle. Rather than etch the resonator out of silicon, a U-shaped glass tube is vibrated by a piezoelectric speaker and kept at its resonant frequency by feedback from a cheap photointerrupter. When an embryo is pumped into the tube, the slight change in mass alters the resonant frequency of the system, which is easily detected by the photointerrupter. The technique can even be leveraged to measure volume and density of the embryos, and all for about $12 in parts.

In the lab, [Grover]’s team uses a data acquisition card and LabVIEW to run the resonant loop, but there’s no reason a DIY version of this couldn’t use an Arduino. In fact, tipster [Douglas Miller] expects someone out there will try this, and would appreciate hearing the details. You can ping him on his hackaday.io page.

Heat Shrink Tubing and the Chemistry Behind Its Magic

There’s a lot to be said in favor of getting kids involved in hacking as young as possible, but there is one thing about working in electronics that I believe is best left as a mystery until at least the teenage years — hide the shrink tube. Teach them to breadboard, have them learn resistor color codes and Ohm’s Law, and even teach them to solder. But don’t you dare let them near the heat shrink tubing. Foolishly reveal that magical stuff to kids, and if there’s a heat source anywhere nearby I guarantee they’ll blow through your entire stock of the expensive stuff the minute you turn your back. Ask me how I know.

I jest, but only partly. There really is something fun about applying heat shrink tubing, and there’s no denying how satisfying a termination can be when it’s hermetically sealed inside that little piece of inexplicably expensive tubing. But how does the stuff even work in the first place?

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