Today, I would like to list some interesting developments in open instrumentation. Also, I want to drop a quick note on the Guinier prize of this year’s SAS conference: if you did not nominate anyone yet, how about nominating me?
Perhaps a small justification for such hubris may be in order.
There are many great small-angle scatterers out there to nominate for the Guinier prize (nominations open until April 30). For example, you can consider nominating Jan Ilavsky, Adrian Rennie or Jan-Skov Pedersen, to name but a few. And initially I did considering naming such choices. But whomever I considered, there were others equally worthy of the prize, and I could not possibly consider endorsing one thus ignoring the others.
After struggling for a while, the only “neutral” option I can consider is me. So I hereby offer my candidacy: if you have enjoyed the LookingAtNothing site or my work, and think it has been an “outstanding contribution”, please be so kind as to nominate me for the prize. The information you need for this nomination can be found on this site (“about me” contains my CV, and “publications” lists my publications).
With the prize I will be able to improve the work and outreach efforts. It allows, for example, development of better printed instrumentation and explanation tools (a standalone live Fourier Transform education tool, for example), get better equipment to record videos, and the award makes giving presentations easier (it is easier to justify inviting people with awards). In short, the prize can be used to make small-angle scattering bigger!
Printing your own laboratory
I have come across quite some articles in the past few weeks of people building some laboratory instrument by themselves (in order to cut cost, for societal benefit or philosophical reasons, or to explore instrument development). It has become easier to do so with a rapid increase in inexpensive open hardware (control electronics, measurement devices), 3D printing, and a lower threshold for programming.
There are now enough such projects around that one can build a (near-)complete laboratory on a small budget, given enough students and some time. Such laboratories are excellent options for universities and institutes in developing countries to expand their instrumentation, but also for “rich” institutes to lower the threshold of use and increase availability. Furthermore, by building, students and researchers can learn better how their instruments work, which helps to understand the way instruments can fail and fool.
To highlight the breadth of some of these efforts, here are some projects I came across. Let’s start with the hardware that forms the core of much of the combined instrumentation.
- The Arduino: an open, easily programmed microcontroller with a few analog and digital inputs and outputs. For this board, many “shields” are available: plug-on modules enabling various custom functionality. I have used one before as pulse counter and ratemeter. Cost: about 30 Euro.
- The Raspberry Pi 2:
a small, yet full-featured Linux computer I am just getting started with. Very capable of running the Python programming language, and much help is available online due to its popularity. This will probably replace my ageing Mac Pro for Ultra-SAXS instrument control soon. Cost: about 40 Euro.
The Red Pitaya: an open data acquisition device (much faster than the Arduino or Pi), can be used as 50 MHz oscilloscope, signal generator, spectrum analyser, etc.. Cost: 375 Euro (at RS-components). This may in the future replace the aforementioned NIM-duino, and take on more tasks such as peak profile analysis (working as an advanced discriminator).
The aforementioned hardware can be combined with custom pieces, printed cases and some other off-the-shelf components to build some amazing instrumentation:
- A Raspberry Pi-controlled, 3d-printed Raman spectrometer: the RamanPi. Git repository with all details here. More details here. Estimated cost: $600 – $1000.
- Much more straightforward, but still fun: A UV/vis spectrometer (though details are sparse as of yet), approximate cost $100.
- More spectrometers: a colorimeter (publication here)
My own Ultra-SAXS instrument (second version), introduced here. Estimated cost: about 30000 Euro without X-ray source (price to go down with future improvements).
- The Open Microscope: an automated, good laboratory microscope.
- The open Quartz Crystal Microbalance. A tiny microbalance, with a 3D-printed case and an Arduino microcontroller board for control. Cost: 400-500 Euros.
- Safecast: an open design, GPS-enabled radiation monitor, designed after the Fukushima disaster. Cost: $450 (Amazon).
- But the list is larger than I expected, there are centrifuges, syringe pumps, telescopes, and much, much more.
So now the downsides to these efforts.
Firstly, there is much less support than one would get buying an instrument from a company. Some of these projects are short-term projects or reliant on community efforts, and any help may therefore disappear sooner or later.
Secondly, building instruments is not a quick effort (no matter how easy it might seem), and such projects should therefore be led by people on exactly those long-term contracts which are becoming exceedingly rare in the “metrics-driven” institutes.
Lastly, there are few accolades for building common instruments, which will not help boost your “metrics” in any way.
However, I can personally attest that it is fun and at least personally rewarding to build an instrument by yourself. Building means you learn a lot of new things and skills, which a noble goal in and of itself.
Secondly, you can take it easy if you have the time. My instrument took a while to build, but I was not at it all the time. I have spent about 10-20% of my research time over the last few years building it: whenever I felt stuck in whatever I was doing, I could go to the lab and (re-)build something.
And now I feel I can build amazing robotics with my kid later in life. And that may be worth something too.