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.

Maybe You Can Print in Metal

Let’s face it. Printing in plastic is old hat. It is fun. It is useful. But it isn’t really all that exotic anymore. The real dream is to print using metal. There are printers that handle metal in different ways, but they aren’t usually practical for the conventional hacker. Even a “cheap” metal printer costs over $100,000. But there are ways you can almost get there with a pretty garden-variety printer.

There’s no shortage of people mixing things into PLA filament. If you have a metal hot end and don’t mind wearing out nozzles, you can get PLA filament with various percentages of metal powder in it. You can get filament that is 50% to 85% metal and produce things that almost seem like they are made from metals.

[Beau Jackson] recently had a chance to experiment with a metal-bearing filament that has a unique twist. Virtual Foundry’s Filamet has about 10% PLA. The remaining material is copper. Not only do you have to print the material hot, but you have to print it slow (it is much denser than standard PLA). If it were just nearly 90% metal, that would be impressive, but nothing too exciting.  The real interesting part is what you can do after the print is complete. (If you don’t want to read, you can always skip to the videos, below.)

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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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Metal Casting With Single Shelled PLA Masters

[3DTOPO] does a lot of metal casting (video link, embedded below). That’s obvious by the full and appropriate set of safety gear, a rarity on YouTube.

They had all the equipment to do it the normal way: craft or CNC out a master, produce a drag and a copy, make any necessary cores, and finally; pour the mold. This is a long and tedious process. It has a high rate of error, and there is a parting line.

Another set of methods are the lost ones. With these methods the master is produced out of a material like foam or wax. The master is surrounded by refractory and then melted, burned, or baked out of the mold. Finally the metal is poured in. Theoretically, a perfect reproduction is made without ever having to open the mold.
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Learn Resin Casting Techniques: Cold Casting

Sometimes we need the look, feel, and weight of a metal part in a project, but not the metal itself. Maybe you’re going for that retro look. Maybe you’re restoring an old radio and you have one brass piece but not another. It’s possible to get a very metal like part without all of the expense and heat required in casting or the long hours in the metal fabrication shop.

Before investing in the materials for cold casting, it’s best to have practical expectations. A cold cast part will not take a high polish very well, but for brushed and satin it can be nearly indistinguishable from a cast part. The cold cast part will have a metal weight to it, but it clinks like ceramic. It will feel cool and transfers heat fairly well, but I don’t have numbers for you. Parts made with brass, copper, and iron dust will patina accordingly. If you want them to hold a bright shine they will need to be treated with shellac or an equivalent coating afterward; luckily the thermoset resins are usually pretty inert so any coating used on metal for the same purpose will do.

It is best to think of the material as behaving more or less like a glass filled nylon such as the kind used for the casing of a power tool. It will be stiff. It will flex a relatively short distance before crazing and then cracking at the stress points. It will be significantly stronger than a 3D printed part, weaker than a pure resin part, and depending on the metal; weaker than the metal it is meant to imitate.

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The (Copper) Crystal Method

One of the staples of kitchen chemistry for kids is making sugar crystals or rock candy. Why not? It is educational and it tastes good, too. [Science with Screens] has a different kind of crystal in mind: copper crystals. You can see the result in the video below.

To grow pure metal crystals, he used copper wire and copper sulfate. He also used a special regulated power supply to create a low voltage to control the current used to form the crystal. The current needed to be no more than 10mA, and an LM317 holds the voltage constant. However, that regulator only goes as low as 1.25V, so diodes cut a volt off the output.

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Growing Copper and Silver Crystals for Art

Usually when Hackaday covers electroplating techniques, it’s to talk about through-hole PCB plating. But did you know you can use the same method to produce beautiful copper and silver crystal structures?

[Fred and Connie Libby] are kind enough to share how they make their crystals that they sell in tiny glass vials you can wear around your neck. The process is simple as you would think; it’s just an electrolyte solution, with a current passing through it, depositing the metal in an ion-exchange. Rather then stop once the part is sufficiently covered, you let the process run amok, and soon large crystal formations begin to emerge. [Fred and Connie] share their technique very briefly, so if you’re looking for a more detailed how-to guide, you can find one here.

Although silver crystals are a bit out of our budget, we wonder how large of a copper crystal could be grown? Large enough to be displayed on a coffee table? Surely such a work of art and science could be an interesting conservation piece in any hacker’s home.