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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Innovating A Better Printing Platform

Just because you have a fancy new 3D printer doesn’t mean that innovation should stop there. Almost everyone has had a print go foul if the first layer doesn’t properly adhere to the printing platform — to say nothing of difficulty in dislodging the piece once it’s finished. Facing mixed results with some established tricks meant to combat these issues, [D. Scott Williamson] — a regular at Chicago’s Workshop 88 makerspace — has documented his trials to find a better printer platform.3D Printer Steel Print Plate 1

For what he had (a printer without a heated plate), painter’s tape and hairspray wasn’t cutting it, especially when it came time to remove the print as the tape wouldn’t completely come off the part. How then, to kill two birds with one stone? Eureka! A flexible metal covering for the printing plate.

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Making Use of Stellaris/Tiva Real-Time Clock

If you’re at all like us, or like [Vadim], you’ve got a stash of development boards in a shoebox on a shelf in your closet. If you’re better organized that we are, it might even be labeled “dev boards”. (Ah well, that’s a project for another day.) Anyway, reach into your box and pull one out, and put it to use. Do something trivial if you need to, but a dev board that’s driving a silly blinker is better than a dev board sitting in the dark.

[Vadim]’s good example to us all is going to serve as the brains for an automated plant watering system. That’s a low-demand application where the microcontroller can spend most of the time sleeping. [Vadim]’s first step, then was to get a real-time clock working with the hibernation mode. There’s working code inline in his blog.

“I don’t know, I didn’t go into Burger King.”

If you use Arduino, you’ll feel at home in the Energia ecosystem. But it’s like ordering a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris: Energia is a Royale with Cheese (YouTube) — it’s the little differences. And maybe that’s the point of the exercise; it’s always a good thing to try out something new, even if it’s only minimally different.

So grab that unused dev board off the shelf, struggle through the unfamiliar development environment and/or toolchain, but remember to keep an eye out for the sweet little differences. The more tools that you’re familiar with, the more solutions will spring to mind when you’re hacking on your next project.

Weaponizing Elementary Science Experiments

[austiwawa] was playing around with one of those simple linear motors people build as friendly little science experiments. There’s an AA battery in the middle of a set of magnets. When you put it inside of a spring it zips around inside until you run out of spring or magic pixies in the battery.

Of course, the natural question arose, “How do I make it go fast!? Like fast!” After making explosion and woosh noises for a bit (like any good hacker would) he settled down and asked a more specific question. If I made the coil the barrel of an air gun, and then shot the battery out… would it go faster?

So, he built an air cannon. It took some ingenuity and duct tape, but he managed to line the barrel with a copper coil. After that he built an experimental set-up, because making something dangerous is only okay if it’s science. That’s the difference between sensible adults and children.

He shot three “dead” rounds through the cannon, and got a baseline result. These dead rounds were made so by placing the magnets at the improper polarity to forego the motion-boosting properties. Then he shot three live ones through. It went measurably faster! Neat!

What’s the silliest thing you’ve ever seen properly characterized? Let us know in the comments below.

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3D Printed Door Latch has One Moving Part – Itself!

A group at the Hasso-Plattner Institute in Germany explored a curious idea: using 3D printed material not just as a material – but as a machine in itself. What does this mean? The clearest example is the one-piece door handle and latch, 3D printed on an Ultimaker 2 with pink Ninjaflex. It is fully functional but has no moving parts (besides itself) and has no assemblies. In other words, the material itself is also the mechanism.

The video (embedded below) showcases some similar concept pieces: door hinges, a pair of pliers, a pair of walker legs, and a pantograph round out the bunch. Clearly the objects aren’t designed with durability or practicality in mind – the “pliers” in particular seem a little absurd – but they do demonstrate different takes on the idea of using a one-piece item’s material properties as a functional machine in itself.

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Diodes With Hats: Zener and Schottky

For beginners, diode types can sometimes be a bit of mental gymnastics. If all it does is act like a magic pixie check valve, why are there so many kinds? Schottky diodes are typically  hard to mentally set apart from the standard when described by a data sheet. Zener diodes can be downright baffling for beginners, especially when mistakenly thrown in a circuit in place of a regular 1N4001. [Afrotechmods] put together a great video explaining their difference and use cases.

In both videos he does an excellent job of describing the pros and cons while setting up experiments to exhibit each. For the Schottky it’s the faster switching and lower voltage drop. For Zener it’s less about the cons and more about exploiting its strange configuration for voltage clamps, regulators, and making expensive guitars sound bad with audio distortion circuits.

He finishes both videos with good design tips for selecting and using the parts as a burgeoning circuit designer. Diode data sheets should be less of a mystery afterwards.

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Stop Buying Expensive Circular Saw Blades, Use Paper Instead

[John Heisz] was contemplating the secrets of the universe when an errant thought led him to wonder, could I use a sheet of paper as the blade in my table saw?

He takes a sheet of regular printer paper, draws a circle on it the same diameter as his regular blades, and cuts it out. He then bolts it into place on the spindle, slots in the table saw insert for really really thin kerf blades, and fires it up.

The blade is surprisingly dangerous. One would maybe expect a paper blade to be minimally damaging to a finger at best, but it quickly shows itself to be capable of tearing through paper and cutting through wood at a reasonable clip. Since the paper is minimally conductive, a SawStop couldn’t save someone from a lack of caution.

The blade finally meets its match half way through a half-inch thick piece of wood scrap. Wood and paper dust explode outward as the experiment ends. Video after the break.

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