If you’ve ever taken a coast-to-coast car trip across the United States, the one thing that’s sure to impress you is the mind-bogglingly immense amount of corn that we grow here. If you take the northern route — I’ve done it seven times, so I know it by heart — you’ll see almost nothing but corn from Ohio to Montana. The size of the fields is simply staggering, and you’re left wondering, “Do we really eat all this corn?”
The simple answer is no, we don’t. We grow way more corn than we can eat or, once turned into alcohol, drink. We do feed a lot to animals, many of which subsequently end up as burgers or pork chops. But even after all that, and after accounting for exports, we still have a heck of a lot of corn to put to work. There are lots of industrial uses for this surplus corn, though, and chances are pretty good you’ve got an ear or two worth coiled up next to your 3D-printer, in the form of polylactic acid, or PLA.
Like most accidents, it happened in an instant that seemed to last an eternity. I had been felling trees for firewood all afternoon, and in the waning light of a cold November day, I was getting ready to call it quits. There was one tiny little white pine sapling left that I wanted to clear, no thicker than my arm. I walked over with my Stihl MS-290, with a brand new, razor sharp chain. I didn’t take this sapling seriously — my first mistake — and cut right through it rather than notching it. The tree fell safely, and I stood up with both hands on the saw. Somehow I lost my footing, swiveled, and struck my left knee hard with the still-running chainsaw. It kicked my knee back so hard that it knocked me to the ground.
In another world, that would likely have a been a fatal injury — I was alone, far from the house, and I would have had mere minutes to improvise a tourniquet before bleeding out. But as fate would have it, I was protected by my chainsaw chaps, full of long strands of the synthetic fiber Kevlar.
The chain ripped open the chaps, pulled the ultrastrong fibers out, and instantly jammed the saw. I walked away feeling very stupid, very lucky, and with not a scratch on me. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I owed my life to Stephanie Kwolek.
We all know what the ultimate goal of 3D printing is: to be able to print parts for everything, including our own bodies. To achieve that potential, we need better ways to print soft materials, and that means we need better ways to support prints while they’re in progress.
That’s the focus of an academic paper looking at printing silicone within oil-based microgels. Lead author [Christopher S. O’Bryan] and team from the Soft Matter Research Lab at the University of Florida Gainesville have developed a method using self-assembling polymers soaked in mineral oil as a matrix into which silicone elastomers can be printed. The technique takes advantage of granular microgels that are “jammed” into a solid despite being up to 95% solvent. Under stress, such as that exerted by the nozzle of a 3D printer, the solid unjams into a flowing liquid, allowing the printer to extrude silicone. The microgel instantly jams back into a solid again, supporting the silicone as it cures.
[O’Bryan] et al have used the technique to print a model trachea, a small manifold, and a pump with ball valves. There are Quicktime videos of the finished manifold and pump in action. While we’ve covered flexible printing options before, this technique is a step beyond and something we’re keen to see make it into the hobby printing market.
The pioneering years in the history of capacitors was a time when capacitors were used primarily for gaining an early understanding of electricity, predating the discovery even of the electron. It was also a time for doing parlor demonstrations, such as having a line of people holding hands and discharging a capacitor through them. The modern era of capacitors begins in the late 1800s with the dawning of the age of the practical application of electricity, requiring reliable capacitors with specific properties.
One such practical use was in Marconi’s wireless spark-gap transmitters starting just before 1900 and into the first and second decade. The transmitters built up a high voltage for discharging across a spark gap and so used porcelain capacitors to withstand that voltage. High frequency was also required. These were basically Leyden jars and to get the required capacitances took a lot of space.
In 1909, William Dubilier invented smaller mica capacitors which were then used on the receiving side for the resonant circuits in wireless hardware.
Early mica capacitors were basically layers of mica and copper foils clamped together as what were called “clamped mica capacitors”. These capacitors weren’t very reliable though. Being just mica sheets pressed against metal foils, there were air gaps between the mica and foils. Those gap allowed for oxidation and corrosion, and meant that the distance between plates was subject to change, altering the capacitance.
In the 1920s silver mica capacitors were developed, ones where the mica is coated on both sides with the metal, eliminating the air gaps. With a thin metal coating instead of thicker foils, the capacitors could also be made smaller. These were very reliable. Of course we didn’t stop there. The modern era of capacitors has been marked by one breakthrough after another for a fascinating story. Let’s take a look.
It’s a really tough problem that has been solved to an amazing level. How do you capture and contain urine from a floppy, curved, and moving human infant? Ah, but the problem is a bit harder than that. You also want to keep that liquid away from the soft skin of the newborn and keep the exterior of your overall system dry too. From an R&D point of view the nice thing is that the customer base is huge — everyone needs some type of diapers. And what we have achieved thus far is a huge accomplishment of material science. [Bill Hammack], The Engineer Guy, takes on the engineering of baby diapers in his latest video.
A diaper uses three inner layers to sweep urine away from baby’s skin. The first layer actually repels water — being injected between skin and this layer, liquid passes through the holes in the material. But the moisture repellent property prevents it from moving in the opposite direction because of the next two layers encountered. The second layer uses capillary action to pull the moisture toward the third (and to act as a one-way moisture valve). The third layer contains a super-absorbent polymer. That layer starts off very thin and swells with absorption.
Bill explores just a bit about how these materials are actually manufactured. The layers are non-woven to form the necessary structures. The absorption layer uses cotton fibers to ensure moisture doesn’t form a dam between polymers. Whether you have a little one in your own household or not, the science behind this solved problem is fascinating and well worth the six minutes you’ll spend on the video below.
Electrospinning is a fascinating process where a high voltage potential is applied between a conductive emitter nozzle and a collector screen. A polymer solution is then slowly dispensed from the nozzle. The repulsion of negative charges in the solution forces fine fibers emanate from the liquid. Those fibers are then rapidly accelerated towards the collector screen by the electric field while being stretched and thinned down to a few hundred nanometers in diameter. The large surface area of the fine fibers lets them dry during their flight towards the collector screen, where they build up to a fine, fabric-like material. We’ve noticed that electrospinning is hoped to enable fully automated manufacturing of wearable textiles in the future.
[Douglas Miller] already has experience cooking up small batches of microscopic fibers. He’s already made carbon nanotubes in his microwave. The next step is turning those nanotubes into materials and fabrics in alow-cost, open source electrospinning machine, his entry for the Hackaday Prize.
It’s not transparent aluminum, exactly, but it might be even better: transparent wood. Scientists at the University of Maryland have devised a way to remove all of its coloring, leaving behind an essentially clear piece of wood.
By boiling the block of wood in a NaOH and Na2SO chemical bath for a few hours the wood loses its lignin, which is gives wood its color. The major caveat here is that the lignin also gives wood strength; the colorless cellulose structure that remains is itself very fragile. The solution is to impregnate the transparent wood with an epoxy using about three vacuum cycles, which results in a composite that is stronger than the original wood.
There are some really interesting applications for this material. It does exhibit some haze so it is not as optimally transparent as glass but in cases where light and not vision is the goal — like architectural glass block — this is a winner. Anything traditionally build out of wood for its mechanical properties will be able to add an alpha color channel to the available options.
The next step is finding a way to scale up the process. At this point the process has only been successful on samples up to 1 centimeter thick. If you’re looking to build a starship out of this stuff in the meantime, your best bet is still transparent aluminum. We do still wonder if there’s a way to eliminate the need for epoxy, too.
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