Synthetic Biology Creates Living Computers

Most people have at least a fuzzy idea of what DNA is. Ask about RNA, though, and unless you are talking to a biologist, you are likely to get even more handwaving. We hackers might have to reread our biology text books, though, since researchers have built logic gates using RNA.

Sometimes we read these university press releases and realize that the result isn’t very practical. But in this case, the Arizona State University study shows how AND, OR, and NOT gates are possible and shows practical applications with four-input AND gates and six-input OR gates using living cells. The key is a construct known as an RNA toehold switch (see video below). Although this was worked out in 2012, this recent study shows how to apply it practically.

Continue reading “Synthetic Biology Creates Living Computers”

Stealing Joules From An Aluminium-Air Battery

While batteries are cheap and readily obtainable today, sometimes it’s still fun to mess around with their less-common manifestations. Experimenting with a few configurations, user [will.stevens] has assembled an aluminium-air battery and combined it with a joule thief to light an LED.

To build the air battery, soak an activated charcoal puck — from a water filter, for example — in salt-saturated water while you cut the base off an aluminium can. A circle of tissue paper — also saturated with the salt water — is pressed between the bare charcoal disk and the can, taking care not to rip the paper, and topped off with a penny and a bit of wire. Once clamped together, the reaction is able to power an LED via a simple joule thief.

Continue reading “Stealing Joules From An Aluminium-Air Battery”

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.

Continue reading “Anyone Need a Little Fuming Nitric Acid?”

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.

Continue reading “Sort Out Chemical Storage For Your Shop”

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.

Continue reading “Go Small, Get Big: The Hack that Revolutionized Bioscience”

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.

Continue reading “Graphene from Graphite by Electrochemical Exfoliation”