No doubt many of you have spent a happy Christmas tearing away layers of wrapping paper to expose some new gadget. But did you stop to spare a thought for the “sticky-back plastic” holding your precious gift paper together?
There are a crazy number of adhesive tapes available, and in this article I’d like to discuss a few of the ones I’ve found useful in my lab, and their sometimes surprising applications. I’d be interested in your own favorite tapes and adhesives too, so please comment below!
But first, I’d like to start with the tapes that I don’t use. Normal cellulose tape, while useful outside the lab, is less than ideally suited to most lab applications. The same goes for vinyl-based insulating tapes, which I find have a tendency to fall off leaving a messy sticky residue. When insulation is necessary, heatshrink seems to serve better.
The one tape I have in my lab which is similar to common cellulose tape however is Scotch Magic Tape. Scotch Magic tape, made from a cellulose acetate, and has a number of surprising properties. It’s often favored because of it’s matte finish. It can easily be written on and when taped to paper appears completely transparent. It’s also easy to tear/shape and remove. But for my purposes I’m more interested in it’s scientific applications.
Here’s a neat trick you can try at home. Take a roll of tape (I’ve tried this with Scotch Magic tape but other tapes may work too) to a dark room. Now start unrolling the tape and look at interface where the tape leaves the rest of the roll. You should see a dim blue illumination. The effect is quite striking and rather surprising. It’s called triboluminescence and has been observed since the 1950s in tapes and far earlier in other materials (even sugar when scraped in a dark room will apparently illuminate). The mechanism, however, is poorly understood.
It was perhaps this strange effect that led researchers to try unrolling tape in a vacuum. In 1953 a group of Russian researchers attempted this and bizarrely enough, were able to generate X-rays. Their results were unfortunately forgotten for many years, but were replicated in 2008 and even used to X-ray a researcher’s finger! As usual Ben Krasnow has an awesome video on the topic:
In my lab however I mostly use Scotch tape to remove surface layers. In certain experiments it’s valuable to have an atomically flat surface. Both Mica and HOPG (a kind of graphite) are composed of atomically flat layers. Scotch tape can be used to remove the upper layers leaving a clean flat surface for experimentation.
Researchers have also modified this technique to produce graphene. Graphene is composed of single carbon layers and has a number of amazing properties, highly conductive, incredibly strong, and transparent. For years producing small quantities of graphene provided difficult. But in 2004 a simple method was developed at the University of Manchester using nothing but bulk ordered graphite (HOPG) and a little Scotch tape. When repeatedly pressed between the Scotch tape, the Graphite layers can be separated until eventually only a signal layer of graphene remains.
The other non-conductive tape I use regularly in my lab is of course Kapton tape. While Kapton is a Dupoint brand name, it’s basically a polyimide film tape which is thermally stable up to 400 degrees C. This makes it ideal for work holding in electronics (or masking out pins) when soldering. You can also use it for insulating (though it’s inadvisable for production applications). Typically polyimide tape is available under a number of dubious synonyms (one example is Kaptan) from a variety of Chinese suppliers at low cost.
Carbon tape is conductive in all axes. This means it you can create a electrical connection by simply taping to your devices. It’s resistance however is somewhat high. I’ve most commonly come across this when using electron microscopes. Carbon tape is used both to keep a sample in place and create an electrical connection between the sample and the sample mount.
Other conducting tapes are available with lower resistance, creating a electrical connection without soldering is valuable in a number of situations. Particularly when heat might damage the device. One example of this is piezoelectric materials. Not only does solder often bond poorly to ceramic materials, but it may also depole the material removing its piezoelectric properties. I tend to use conductive epoxies in these situations, but conductive tapes appear to be an attractive option.
Aluminum tape is commonly used for (heat) insulation in homes. It’s therefore very cheap and easily available. As well as conducting heat aluminum tape of course also conducts electricity. Around the lab this can be pretty handy. While the adhesive is not conductive, making it less attractive for connection parts, I’ve found aluminum tape great of sealing up holes in shielded enclosures. It also makes a great accompaniment to aluminum foil which is used to provide ad-hoc shielding in many scientific environments. Copper tape is also easily obtained, though slightly more expensive.
A much less common, but far cooler conductive tape is so called Z tape. This tape is composed of regular double-sided tape impregnated with spaced conductors. The result is a tape that conducts in only one direction (from the top to the bottom). This makes it similar in structure to a zebra strip, commonly used to connect LCDs. Z tape is unfortunately pretty expensive, a short 100mm strip can cost 5 dollars. What exactly 3M had in mind when creating Z tape is unclear. But it can be used for repairing FPC connectors on LCDs or in other situations where soldering is impractical.
One of the more awesome applications is Jie and Bunnie’s circuit sticker project. The kits are designed to allow kids to assemble circuits simply by sticking components together. Z tape is ideal for this, as it allows multiple connections to be made using the same piece to tape.
I couldn’t write an article on tape without mentioning the somewhat apocryphal “Invisible Electrostatic Wall” incident. A report at the 17th Annual EOS/ESD Symposium describes a “force field” like wall that appeared during the production of polypropylene film. While the story seems slightly dubious, it reminds us of the surprising applications and utility of tapes.
Next time you’re sending off a package or ripping open a package, spare a thought for the humble tape that holds it together.