Chemical Formulas 101

It seems like every other day we hear about some hacker, tinkerer, maker, coder or one of the many other Do-It-Yourself engineer types getting their hands into a complex field once reserved to only a select few. Costs have come down, enabling common everyday folks to equip themselves with 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC mills and a host of other once very expensive pieces of equipment. Getting PCB boards made is literally dirt cheap, and there are more inexpensive Linux single board computers than we can keep track of these days. Combining the lowering hardware costs with the ever increasing wealth of knowledge available on the internet creates a perfect environment for DIYers to push into ever more specific scientific fields.

One of these fields is biomedical research. In labs across the world, you’ll find a host of different machines used to study and create biological and chemical compounds. These machines include DNA and protein synthesizers, mass spectrometers, UV spectrometers, lyophilizers, liquid chromatography machines, fraction collectors… I could go on and on.

These machines are prohibitively expensive to the DIYer. But they don’t have to be. We have the ability to make these machines in our garages if we wanted to. So why aren’t we? One of the reasons we see very few biomedical hacks is because the chemistry knowledge needed to make and operate these machines is generally not in the typical DIYers toolbox. This is something that we believe needs to change, and we start today.

In this article, we’re going to go over how to convert basic chemical formulas, such as C9H804 (aspirin), into its molecular structure, and visa versa. Such knowledge might be elementary, but it is a requirement for anyone who wishes to get started in biomedical hacking, and a great starting point for the curious among us.

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Copper Thermite Explodes and Smolders Successfully

It was quite a surprise to learn that thermite isn’t just rust and aluminum powder, but describes any combination of metal powder, metal oxide, and optionally fuel mixed together in a reactive ratio.  [sciencewithscreens] shows us some of the properties of a copper (II) oxide based thermite.

We can only assume he has a thing for copper as an element. After growing his copper crystal it wasn’t long before he followed a winding road of copper based experiments and found himself with a supply of copper (II) oxide after rendering it from common household chemicals. He had two missions for it. The first was to witness an unfettered copper oxide based thermite reaction. Some had assured him it was practically explosive. The other was to attempt refining pure copper using the reaction. That would be pretty cool considering it all started out as an impure blend of laundry detergents and fertilizer.

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Bring Doping, Microfluidics, Photovoltaics, and More Into the Home

Can you make a spectrometer for your home lab all from materials you have sitting around? We might not believe it from a less credible source, but this MIT course does indeed build a spectrometer from foam board using two razor blades as the silt cover and a writable CD as the diffraction grating. The coolest part is removing the metal backing of the CD.

mit_experiments_thumbHackaday reader [gratian] tipped us off about the course available from MIT courseware called Nanomaker. It boils down some fairly complicated experiments to the kind one can do in the home lab without involving thousands of dollars of lab equipment. The whole point is to demystify what we think of as complicated devices and topics surrounding photovoltaics, organic photovoltaics, piezoelectricity and thermoelectricity.


Spectrometers are used to analyze the wavelengths of a light source. Now that you have a measurement tool in hand it’s time to build and experiment with some light sources of your own. Here you can see an LED that is the topic of one of the course labs.

If you have a bit of background in chemistry this is a good step-by-step guide for getting into these types of experiments at home. It reminds us of some of the really cool stuff [Jeri Ellsworth] was doing in her garage lab, like making her own EL panels.

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Cheap Vacuum Source For Working With Dangerous Chemicals

[Nurdrage] puts out a lot of neat videos, mostly about home chemistry. For the home chemist it is occasionally desirable to pull a vacuum. For example, a potentially dangerous chemical can be boiled and distilled at a much lower temperature than at atmospheric pressures.

However, there’s a problem with just going to the local import store and buying the first vacuum pump on the shelf.  They are primarily designed for atmospheric gasses and tend to melt when exposed to solvents. If you’re a big university or a commercial lab this is no problem. You just drop three grand on a Teflon diaphragm pump or a liquid nitrogen trap. For the home chemist who’s already having enough trouble just buying the chemicals needed for neat experiments, this is not an option.

[Nurdrage] demonstrates the proper usage of a much cheaper option: an aspirator vacuum pump. You might remember something similar from high school chemistry. School pumps generally use flowing tap water to produce the vacuum. [Nurdrage] is saving water by using a fluid pump and a reservoir to drive his aspirator.

Aspirator pumps use the Venturi effect to create a vacuum. These devices are cheap because there are no moving parts. We looked it up and the one he is using costs ten US dollars on fleabay. It can pull enough vacuum to boil water below room temperature.

The video is really good and provides a lot of useful information. It also seems like a really useful device for other hacking tasks outside of home chemistry. Video after the break.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: A Printer For Alternative Photography

Film photography began with a mercury-silver amalgam, and ended with strips of nitrocellulose, silver iodide, and dyes. Along the way, there were some very odd chemistries going on in the world of photography, from ferric and silver salts to the prussian blue found in Cyanotypes and blueprints.

Metal salts are fun, and for his Hackaday Prize entry, [David Brown] is building a printer for these alternative photographic processes. It’s not a dark room — it’s a laser printer designed to reproduce images with weird, strange chemistries.

Cyanotypes are made by applying potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate to some sort of medium, usually paper or cloth. This is then exposed via UV light (i.e. the sun), and whatever isn’t exposed is washed off. Instead of the sun, [David] is using a common UV laser diode to expose his photographs. he already has the mechanics of this printer designed, and he should be able to reach his goal of 750 dpi resolution and 8-bit monochrome.

Digital photography will never go away, but there will always be a few people experimenting with light sensitive chemicals. We haven’t seen many people experiment with these strange alternative photographic processes, and anything that gets these really cool prints out into the world is great news for us.

Fail Of The Week: Machining Bismuth

[David Cook]’s summary below the write-up of his experiences working with a bismuth ingot is succinct.

I wasted a weekend learning why elemental bismuth is not commonly used for metal parts.

It’s a fair assessment of his time spent growing unspectacular bismuth crystals, casting a bismuth cylinder that cracked, and machining bismuth only to be left with a very rough finish. But even though he admits the exercise was unsuccessful, he does provide us with a fascinating look at the physical properties of the element.

This is what [David] wanted to make. Alchemist-hp + Richard Bartz with focus stack. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
This is what [David] wanted to make. Alchemist-hp + Richard Bartz with focus stack. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Bismuth is one of those elements you pass by in your school chemistry lessons, it has applications in machining alloys and as a lead replacement but most of us have never knowingly encountered it in the real world. It’s one of the heavy metals, below antimony and to the right of lead on the Periodic Table. Curious schoolchildren may have heard that like water it expands on solidifying or that it is diamagnetic, and most of us have probably seen spectacular pictures of its crystals coated in colourful iridescent oxides.

It was a Hackaday story about these crystals that attracted [David] to the metal. It has a low enough melting point – 271.5 °C – that it can be liquified on a domestic stove, so mindful of his marital harmony should he destroy any kitchen appliances he bought a cheap electric ring from Amazon to go with his bismuth ingot. and set to work.

His first discovery was that cheap electric rings outdoors aren’t very effective metallurgy furnaces. Relocating to the kitchen and risking spousal wrath, he did eventually melt his bismuth and pick off the top layer once it had resolidified, to reveal some crystals.

These are the bismuth crystals he made.
These are the bismuth crystals he made.

Unfortunately for him, instead of spectacular colors and huge crystals, the sight that greeted him was one of little brilliance. Small grey crystals with no iridescence. It seems the beautiful samples are made by a very slow cooling of the liquid bismuth, followed by a quick pouring off of the remaining molten metal. Future efforts, he assures us, will involve sand-insulated molds and careful temperature monitoring.

Undeterred, he continued with his stock of bismuth and embarked on the creation of a cylinder. Early efforts with a clay mold resulted in cracked cylinders, so in desperation he cast the entirety of the metal in an aluminium baking tray and cut the resulting ingot to a rough piece of stock for turning.

Poor finish on machined bismuth.
Poor finish on machined bismuth.

With the bismuth in the lathe, he then came face to face with what he alluded to in his conclusion above, why machined bismuth parts aren’t something you’ll encounter. His cylinder came out with significantly rough patches on the surface, because bismuth is both crystalline and brittle. He suggests improvements could be made if the metal could be solidified with fewer crystals, but it’s obvious that elemental bismuth on its own is not a winner in the turning stakes.

We suggest you take a look at [David]’s write-up. It may be presented as a Fail of The Week here, but in fact it’s more of a succession of experiments that didn’t work than an unmitigated disaster. The result is an interesting and well-documented read that we’re sure most Hackaday readers will gain something from.

Aside from the bismuth crystals linked to above, we’ve featured bismuth a few times here at Hackaday. A low-temperature soldering process used it in an alloy, and we’ve even featured someone using it in another alloy to print using a RepRap.

Thanks [nebk] for the tip.

Lego-Like Chemistry and Biology Erector Set

A team of researchers and students at the University of California, Riverside has created a Lego-like system of blocks that enables users to custom build chemical and biological research instruments. The system of 3D-printed blocks can create a variety of scientific tools.

The blocks, which are called Multifluidic Evolutionary Components (MECs) appeared in the journal PLOS ONE. Each block in the system performs a basic lab instrument task (pumping fluids, making measurements or interfacing with a user, for example). Since the blocks are designed to work together, users can build apparatus — like bioreactors for making alternative fuels or acid-base titration tools for high school chemistry classes — rapidly and efficiently. The blocks are especially well suited for resource-limited settings, where a library of blocks can create a variety of different research and diagnostic tools.

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