Bringing makers back to the Lab

Arduino Science
Bringing makers back to the Lab

Scientists working in a lab are just folks. Like motor heads with cars, we have our favourite makes and models. Except with scientists, it’s all about the lab equipment, and the pros and cons of various models and brands are debated in the bar after work with as much heat and your average motor head when they’re talking about engines and transmissions.

The main problem with lab equipment is that it’s expensive. Often the next model up from what you can actually afford is the one that does what you need, and frustratingly the only difference is that the one you can afford and that one is that it has features disabled in software. Like everything sold to “big business” differential pricing comes into play with a vengeance when it comes to lab equipment.

But universities are only big businesses in abstract, the individual researchers—the people that actually buy the lab equipment—usually are trying to eke out the last remaining scraps of a grant when they actually buy the equipment

So there’s a grand tradition of making do with bailing wire, twine, and of course, gaffer tape. Almost inevitably then in recent years, the arrival of the maker movement has meant that the gaffer tape has been joined by Arduino boards.

It was only a matter of time before people started taking Arduinos and building the lab equipment they wanted.

Back in September at Maker Faire NY we talked to Charles Pax of Pax Instruments who successfully crowdfunded the first of what he promises is going to be a range of open source lab equipment, a four-channel thermocouple temperature datalogger.

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Talking to Charles Pax at Maker Faire NY in September.

Of course Charles isn’t alone, also at Maker Faire were Carbon Origins and their Apollo board. Built by a group of college students who moved to the Mojave Desert, bought a house, painted it white, and turned it into a makeshift lab—and then they went out to launch rockets.

But they ran into problems, when they launched their latest rocket,

“Our rocket exploded, and we didn’t know why, we needed a data logger …”

So they built their own.

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Talking to Amogha Srirangarajan from Carbon Origins.

Until recently there wasn’t much discussion in the maker community about calibration. Most of the sensors you can buy off the shelf from places like Adafruit or Sparkfun aren’t calibrated, or at least not calibrated with the requirements of scientists in mind—this is especially true of things like gas sensors that would require calibration test chambers with known amounts of the various gases.

There seems to be a number of different data loggers turning up right now, and time will tell whether these are going to be as useful to professional—and amateur—scientists as they could be. However it’s interesting to see discussions around calibration, and absolute rather than relative measurement, starting to happen in the maker community.

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Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer, who is spending a lot of his time thinking about the Internet of Things. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.

View more articles by Alasdair Allan


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