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DIY Lab Tools Save Scientists Thousands of Dollars

09/14/2012
Ashley Yeager

Scientists are using open source tools to make their own lab equipment, slashing the cost of science.


Move over Home and Garden TV. Scientists are using the do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality to make over their labs—not the d├ęcor but the research equipment.

Self-made beakers, flasks, and other tools gives scientists worldwide access to equipment at a fraction of the cost, according to Joshua Pearce, an engineer at Michigan Technological University. To fabricate lab equipment, DIY science uses publicly available software, 3D printers, and other easily accessible technology.

Michigan Tech's Joshua Pearce with a machine, Mendel RepRap, that is made of parts available in any local hardware store, open-source electronics available online, and parts the machine can make for itself. Source: Sarah Bird, Michigan Tech





In the formal lab setting, fabricating lab equipment "ensures you are never stuck with a paperweight for a research tool,” he added. He has used the open-source, DIY method in his own lab to make instruments to study photovoltaic materials. The process is based on electronic microcontrollers such as an Arduino, which runs different scientific instruments, including Geiger counters. Paired with 3D printers, that cost about $500, the Arduino guides the way the printer lays down sub-millimeter-thick layers of plastic to create orbital shakers, standard 96-well microliter plates, and other equipment.

RadioShack carries Arduino microcontrollers for $35. “So, they are pretty mainstream,” said Pearce, adding that many companies also carry 3D printers. “In general, most scientists now have access to them, however, I know that some scientists in the developing world still have trouble sourcing some materials like 3D printer filament,” he added.

Overall, the DIY process has saved Pearce thousands of dollars, and it could do the same for other scientists as well, he said. “Even some of the best scientists spend the majority of their time applying for funding rather than thinking about their work,” mainly because lab equipment is expensive, he said. He explained that at most major research centers, overhead costs are more than 50%, which means that a $50,000 research tool needs a minimum of $100,000 in grant funding.

"If you can make the tool yourself for $5000, you can either use the saved funds for other uses such as funding graduate students or you can use the time freed up from writing additional grants to do real science," and “the more time scientists are doing research the better it is for any scientific field and the rest of society,” he said.

Pearce conceded that the revolution in self-made science equipment is in its infancy. Scientists can't yet print entire nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers and other large instruments. But, he added: "In the not so distant future, even our most complex tools will be open source. It is simply a superior method of technological development.”

References

1. Pearce, J. M. 2012. Building research equipment with free, Open-Source hardware. Science 337(6100):1303-1304.

Keywords:  diy science