Friday Hack Chat: Open Hardware For Science

Scientific equipment is expensive. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up a lab. Simply the cost of machines, like data acquisition units or even a simple load cell, can cost hundreds of dollars. This makes research cost prohibitive, and that’s the case even if you do spend a dozen hours a week writing grant proposals. Citizen science is right out, because the cost of the tools to do science is so high.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking about Open Hardware for science. This is the chat that’s all about Open Source equipment, hardware modular electronics, and Open designs to make the tools that make science.

Our guest for this week’s Hack Chat is [Dr. Alexxai Kravitz]. He has a PhD in Neuroscience from UPenn and completed a postdoc at the Gladstone Institutes in San Fransisco. [Lex]’s research focuses on understanding the reward circuitry in the brain, and his publications use a variety of experiments to examine this, including behavioral testing, in vivo electrophysiology, and optogenetics.

For this Hack Chat, we’re going to about how Open Source has made more science possible. Of note, we’ll be discussing:

  • What Open Source science equipment is being used today
  • The initiatives behind Open Source Hardware for science applications
  • Scientific application that could benefit from Open Hardware

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Hack Chat Event Page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.join-hack-chat

Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week is just like any other, and we’ll be gathering ’round our video terminals at noon, Pacific, on Friday, May 11th.  Here’s a clock counting down the time until the Hack Chat starts.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Trainspotting with Junk, for Science

[Douglas] hometown Goshen, Indiana takes the state’s motto ‘The Crossroads of America’ seriously, at least when it comes to trains. The city is the meeting point of three heavily frequented railroad tracks that cross near the center of town, resulting in a car-traffic nightmare. When everybody agrees that a situation is bad, it is time to quantify exactly how bad it is. [Douglas] stepped up for this task and delivered.

High tech train counting equipment

He describes himself as cheap, and the gear he used to analyze the railroad traffic at a crossing visible from his home certainly fits the bill: a decades-old webcam, a scratched telephoto lens and a laptop with a damaged hinge.

With the hardware in place, the next step was to write the software to count and time passing trains. Doing this in stable conditions with reasonable equipment would pose no problem to any modern image processing library, but challenged with variable lighting and poor image quality, [Douglas] needed another solution.

Instead of looking for actual trains, [Douglas] decided to watch the crossing signals. His program crops the webcam image and then compares the average brightness of the left and right halves to detect blinking. This rudimentary solution is robust enough to handle low light conditions as well as morning glare and passing cars.

The rest is verifying the data, making it fit for processing, and then combining it with publicly available data on car traffic at the affected intersections to estimate impact. The next council meeting will find [Douglas] well prepared. Traffic issues are a great field for citizen science as shown in Stuttgart earlier. If the idea of bolting old lenses to webcams intrigues you, we got you covered as well.

Don’t Miss Watching this Solar Eclipse High Altitude Balloon Online

[Dan Julio] let us know about an exciting project that he and his team are working on at the Solid State Depot Makerspace in Boulder: the Solar Eclipse High Altitude Balloon. Weighing in at 1 kg and bristling with a variety of cameras, the balloon aims to catch whatever images are able to be had during the solar eclipse. The balloon’s position should be trackable on the web during its flight, and some downloaded images should be available as well. Links for all of that are available from the project’s page.

High altitude balloons are getting more common as a platform for gathering data and doing experiments; an embedded data recorder for balloons was even an entry for the 2016 Hackaday Prize.

If all goes well and the balloon is able to be recovered, better images and video will follow. If not, then at least a post-mortem of what the team thinks went wrong will be posted. Launch time in Wyoming is approximately 10:40 am Mountain Time (UTC -07:00) Mountain Daylight Time (UTC -06:00) on Aug 21 2017, so set your alarm!

Getting a Measure on Particulates in Stuttgart

There’s a big to-do going on right now in Germany over particulate-matter air pollution. Stuttgart, Germany’s “motor city” and one of Dante’s seven circles of Hell during rush hour, had the nation’s first-ever air pollution alert last year. Cities are considering banning older diesel cars outright. So far, Stuttgart’s no-driving days have been voluntary, and the change of the seasons has helped a lot as well. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a problem.

But how big is the issue? And where is it localized? Or is particulate pollution localized at all? These questions would benefit from a distributed network of particulate sensors, and the OK Lab in Stuttgart has put together a simple project(translated here) to get a lot of networked sensors out into the wild, on the cheap.

The basic build is an ESP8266 with an SDS011 particulate sensor attached, with a temperature and humidity sensor if you’re feeling fancy. The suggested housing is very clever: two 90° PVC pipe segments to keep the rain out but let the dust in through a small pipe. The firmware that they supply takes care of getting the device online through your home WiFi. Once you have it running, shoot them an e-mail and you’re online. If you want help, swing by the shackspace.

We love these sort of aggregated, citizen-science monitoring projects — especially when they’re designed so that the buy-in is low, both in terms of money spent and difficulty of getting your sensor online. This effort reminds us of Blitzortung, this radiation-monitoring network, or of the 2014 Hackaday-Prize-Winning SATNOGS. While we understand the need for expensive and calibrated equipment, it’s also interesting to see how far one can get with many many more cheap devices.

Microfluidics “Frogger” is a Game Changer for DIY Biology

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See those blue and green dots in the GIF? Those aren’t pixels on an LCD display. Those are actual drops of liquid moving across a special PCB. The fact that the droplets are being manipulated to play a microfluidics game of “Frogger” only makes OpenDrop v 2.0 even cooler.

Lab biology is mainly an exercise in liquid handling – transferring a little of solution X into some of solution Y with a pipette. Manual pipetting is tedious, error prone, and very low throughput, but automated liquid handling workstations run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This makes [Urs Gaudenz]’s “OpenDrop” microfluidics project a potential game changer for the nascent biohacking movement by offering cheap and easy desktop liquid handling.

Details are scarce on the OpenDrop website as to exactly how this works, but diving into the literature cited reveals that the pads on the PCB are driven to high voltages to attract the droplets. The PCB itself is covered with a hydrophobic film – Saran wrap that has been treated with either peanut oil or Rain-X. Moving the droplets is a simple matter of controlling which pads are charged. Splitting drops is possible, as is combining them – witness the “frog” getting run over by the blue car.

There is a lot of cool work being done in microfluidics, and we’re looking forward to see what comes out of this open effort. We’ve covered other open source efforts in microfluidics before, but this one seems so approachable that it’s sure to capture someone’s imagination.

Continue reading “Microfluidics “Frogger” is a Game Changer for DIY Biology”

Fripon is French for Meteorite Hunting

Just a few weeks ago, we reported on a US NASA project to track the path and estimate the size of meteoroids in the sky using a distributed network of a handful of cameras. It turns out that there’s a similar French effort, and it’s even cooler: the Fireball Recovery and InterPlanetary Observation Network (FRIPON). (The name is cute, if the acronym is contrived: a “fripon” is a trickster in French.)

Continue reading “Fripon is French for Meteorite Hunting”

Open Microfluidics Instrumentation Playset

Micro-what? Microfluidics! It’s the field of dealing with tiny, tiny bits of fluids, and there are some very interesting applications in engineering, biology, and chemistry. [Martin Fischlechner], [Jonathan West], and [Klaus-Peter Zauner] are academic scientists who were working on microfluidics and made their own apparatus, initially because money was tight. Now they’ve stuck to the DIY approach because they can get custom machinery that simply doesn’t exist.

In addition to their collaboration, and to spread the ideas to other labs, they formed DropletKitchen to help advance the state of the art. And you, budding DIY biohacker, can reap the rewards.

In particular, the group is focused on droplet microfluidics. Keeping a biological or chemical reaction confined to its own tiny droplet is like running it inside its own test-tube, but because of the high rate at which the droplets can be pumped out, literally millions of these test-tubes are available. Want to grow hundreds of thousands of single cells, each in their own environment? Done.

The DropletKitchen kit includes an accurate pump system, along with high-speed camera and flash setups to verify that everything’s working as it should. Everything is open-source, and a lot of it is 3D-printable and written in OpenSCAD so that it’s even easy to modify to fit your exact needs. You just need to bring the science.

This is a professional-grade open source project, and we’re excited to see it when academics take a turn toward the open. Bringing cutting edge processing technologies within reach of the biohacker community is a huge multiplier. We can’t wait to see what comes out of this.