Mining And Refining: Tungsten

Our metallurgical history is a little bit like a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, only without the paper; we’re always looking for something hard enough to cut whatever the current hardest metal is. We started with copper, the first metal to be mined and refined. But then we needed something to cut copper, so we ended up with alloys like bronze, which demanded harder metals like iron, and eventually this arms race of cutting led us to steel, the king of metals.

But even a king needs someone to keep him in check, and while steel can be used to make tools hard enough to cut itself, there’s something even better for the job: tungsten, or more specifically tungsten carbide. We produced almost 120,000 tonnes of tungsten in 2022, much of which was directed to the manufacture of tungsten carbide tooling. Tungsten has the highest melting point known, 3,422 °C, and is an extremely dense, hard, and tough metal. Its properties make it an indispensible industrial metal, and it’s next up in our “Mining and Refining” series.

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A glass plate holds a translucent set of silver electrodes. The plate appears to be suspended across two petri dishes, so the scale must be small.

Hydrogels For Bioelectronic Interfaces

Interfacing biological and electrical systems has traditionally been done with metal electrodes, but something flexible can be more biocompatible. One possible option is 3D-printed bioelectric hydrogels.

Electrically conductive hydrogels based on conducting polymers have mechanical, electrical, and chemical stability properties in a fully organic package that makes them more biocompatible than other systems using metals, ionic salts, or carbon nanomaterials. Researchers have now found a way to formulate bi-continuous conducting polymer hydrogels (BC-CPH) that are a phase-separated system that can be used in a variety of manufacturing techniques including 3D printing.

To make the BC-CPH, a PEDOT:PSS electrical phase and a hydrophilic polyurethane mechanical phase are mixed with an ethanol/water solvent. Since the phase separation occurs in the ink before deposition, when the solvent is evaporated, the two phases remain continuous and interspersed, allowing for high mechanical stability and high electrical conductivity which had previously been properties at odds with each other. This opens up new avenues for printed all-hydrogel bioelectronic interfaces that are more robust and biocompatible than what is currently available.

If you want to try another kind of squishy electrode gel, try growing it.

A closeup of a ring and "flower" electrode attached to a translucent piece of material with fainter wires. The flower and ring electrodes are made of molybdenum that has a somewhat accordion fold back-and-forth cross-section.

Electronic Bandage Speeds Wound Healing

We’re a long way from the dermal regenerators in Star Trek, but researchers at Northwestern University have made a leap forward in the convenient use of electrotherapy for wound healing.

Using a ring and center “flower” electrode, this bioresorbable molybdenum device restores the natural bioelectric field across a wound to stimulate healing in diabetic ulcers. Only 30 minutes of electrical stimulation per day was able to show a 30% improvement in healing speed when used with diabetic mice. Power is delivered wirelessly and data is transmitted back via NFC, meaning the device can remain on a patient without leaving them tethered when not being treated.

Healing can be tracked by the change in electrical resistance across the wound since the wound will dry out as it heals. Over a period of six months, the central flower electrode will dissolve into the patient’s body and the rest of the device can be removed. Next steps include testing in a larger animal model and then clinical trials on human diabetic patients.

This isn’t the first time we’ve covered using electricity in medicine.

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Exploring The Healing Power Of Cold Plasma

It probably won’t come as much surprise to find that a blast of hot plasma can be used to sterilize a surface. Unfortunately, said surface is likely going to look a bit worse for wear afterwards, which limits the usefulness of this particular technique. But as it turns out, it’s possible to generate a so-called “cold” plasma that offers the same cleansing properties in a much friendlier form.

While it might sound like science fiction, prolific experimenter [Jay Bowles] was able to create a reliable source of nonthermal plasma for his latest Plasma Channel video with surprisingly little in the way of equipment. Assuming you’ve already got a device capable of pumping out high-voltage, all you really need to recreate this phenomenon is a tank of helium and some tubing.

Cold plasma stopped bacterial growth in the circled area.

[Jay] takes viewers through a few of the different approaches he tried before finally settling on the winning combination of a glass pipette with a copper wire run down the center. When connected to a party store helium tank and the compact Slayer Exciter coil he built last year, the setup produced a focused jet of plasma that was cool enough to touch.

It’s beautiful to look at, but is a pretty light show all you get for your helium? To see if his device was capable of sterilizing surfaces, he inoculated a set of growth plates with bacteria collected from his hands and exposed them to the cold plasma stream. Compared to the untreated control group the reduction in bacterial growth certainly looks compelling, although the narrow jet does have a very localized effect.

If you’re just looking to keep your hands clean, some soap and warm water are probably a safer bet. But this technology does appear to have some fascinating medical applications, and as [Jay] points out, the European Space Agency has been researching the concept for some time now. Who knows? In the not so distant future, you may see a similar looking gadget at your doctor’s office. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time space-tested tech came down to us Earthlings.

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3D Printer Cuts Metal

Every now and then we’ll see a 3D printer that can print an entire house out of concrete or print an entire rocket out of metal. But usually, for our budget-friendly hobbyist needs, most of our 3D printers will be printing small plastic parts. If you have patience and a little bit of salt water, though, take a look at this 3D printer which has been modified to cut parts out of any type of metal, built by [Morlock] who has turned a printer into a 5-axis CNC machine.

Of course, this modification isn’t 3D printing metal. It convers a 3D printer’s CNC capabilities to turn it into a machining tool that uses electrochemical machining (ECM). This process removes metal from a work piece by passing an electrode over the metal in the presence of salt water to corrode the metal away rapidly. This is a remarkably precise way to cut metal without needing expensive or heavy machining tools which uses parts that can easily be 3D printed or are otherwise easy to obtain. By using the 3D printer axes and modifying the print bed to be saltwater-resistant, metal parts of up to 3 mm can be cut, regardless of the type of metal used. [Morlock] also added two extra axes to the cutting tool, allowing it to make cuts in the metal at odd angles.

Using a 3D printer to perform CNC machining like this is an excellent way to get the performance of a machine tool without needing to incur the expense of one. Of course, it takes some significant modification of a 3D printer but it doesn’t need the strength and ridigity that you would otherwise need for a standard CNC machine in order to get parts out of it with acceptable tolerances. If you’re interested in bootstraping one like that using more traditional means, though, we recently featured a CNC machine that can be made from common materials and put together for a minimum of cost.

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3D-Printed Tooling Enables DIY Electrochemical Machining

When it comes to turning a raw block of metal into a useful part, most processes are pretty dramatic. Sharp and tough tools are slammed into raw stock to remove tiny bits at a time, releasing the part trapped within. It doesn’t always have to be quite so violent though, as these experiments in electrochemical machining suggest.

Electrochemical machining, or ECM, is not to be confused with electrical discharge machining, or EDM. While similar, ECM is a much tamer process. Where EDM relies on a powerful electric arc between the tool and the work to erode material in a dielectric fluid, ECM is much more like electrolysis in reverse. In ECM, a workpiece and custom tool are placed in an electrolyte bath and wired to a power source; the workpiece is the anode while the tool is the cathode, and the flow of charged electrolyte through the tool ionizes the workpiece, slowly eroding it.

The trick — and expense — of ECM is generally in making the tooling, which can be extremely complicated. For his experiments, [Amos] took the shortcut of 3D-printing his tool — he chose [Suzanne] the Blender monkey — and then copper plating it, to make it conductive. Attached to the remains of a RepRap for Z-axis control and kitted out with tanks and pumps to keep the electrolyte flowing, the rig worked surprisingly well, leaving a recognizably simian faceprint on a block of steel.

[Amos] admits the setup is far from optimized; the loop controlling the distance between workpiece and tool isn’t closed yet, for instance. Still, for initial experiments, the results are very encouraging, and we like the idea of 3D-printing tools for this process. Given his previous success straightening his own teeth or 3D-printing glass, we expect he’ll get this fully sorted soon enough.

Ambitious Spot Welder Really Pushes The Amps

On the face of it, a spot welder is a simple device. If you dump enough current through two pieces of metal very quickly, they’ll heat up enough to melt and fuse together. But as with many things, the devil is in the details, and building a proper spot welder can be as much about addressing those details as seeing to the basics.

We haven’t featured anything from our friends over at [Make It Extreme], where they’re as much about building tools as they are about using them to build other things, if not more so. We expect, though, that this sturdy-looking spot welder will show up in a future video, because it really looks the business, and seems to work really well. The electronics are deceptively simple — just rewound microwave oven transformers and a simple timer switch to control the current pulse. What’s neat is that they used a pair of transformers to boost the current considerably — they reckon the current at 1,000 A, making the machine capable of welding stock up to 4 mm thick.

With the electrical end worked out, the rest of the build concentrated on the housing. A key to good-quality spot welds is solid physical pressure between the electrodes, which is provided by a leverage-compounding linkage as well as the long, solid-copper electrodes. We’ve got to say that the sweep of the locking handle looks very ergonomic, and we like the way closing down the handle activates the current pulse. Extra points for the carbon-fiber look on the finished version. The video below shows the build and a demo of what it can do.

Most of the spot welders we see are further down the food chain than this one, specialized as they are for welding battery packs and the like. We do recall one other very professional-looking spot welder, though.

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