Monthly Archives: August 2014

Getting Up and Running with a 3D Printer

I recently received some money to purchase a 3D printer to aid my laboratory experiments. I thought that it would be good to share how I decided on the printer that I did and how hard/easy it was to setup. Currently I've only run a few simple test prints, but will be printing some mounting equipment for laboratory experiments within a few weeks.

2014-08-16 05.08.30

Choosing a Printer

When choosing a printer, there are many factors to consider. The consumer 3D printer movement is still very young, so there are many different designs available that require different amounts of tinkering to work and have vastly different capabilities. To help decide, I made a few requirements and decision points :

1. I must be able to print something that is at least 8"x8"x8". Print area is an important consideration and is one of the biggest influences on cost. With this print size I can make most prototypes, brackets, etc that we need. Larger parts can always be printed in sections and joined, but it's not the strongest or easiest thing to do.
2. Print material and method. There are printers that can print in many types of plastic and even in wood. Some printers fuse plastic in layers in an "addictive manufacturing" process. Others can fuse a liquid into a plastic with a process referred to as stereo lithography. Most consumer level machines with a large print area are the type that extrude plastic. There is a large matrix of advantages and disadvantages, but we will just leave it at this for now.
3. The final factor I considered is the development of the machine. Informally this is the "tinker factor." How much are you willing to modify and experiment with the machine to get increased versatility vs. how much do you want a machine that is a push button that just works? I've always been the tinkering type but there is a balance. Some more experimental and low cost machines are not as reliable as I would prefer, but something that is fully developed like the MakerBot line doesn't leave as much versatility. The other portion is the licensing of the software and hardware. I've always been a proponent of the free and open source movement. It's how we are going to advance science and technology. Companies like MakerBot are not fully open source and that just doesn't sit well as it prevents the community from fixing problems in a piece of equipment that was rather expensive.

With all of those considerations and lots of research, I decided on the Taz 4 printer by Lulzbot. You can purchase the printer from Amazon, but I decided to purchase through Sparkfun Electronics since they are a small(ish) business that really supports education and the maker movement. I ordered the printer within a few hours of passing my comprehensive exams and it was on the way!

Setting up the printer

I received the printer and followed all of the setup instructions. This involved assembling the axes and removing the packing protection. I've never done this before, but overall it was very straightforward and took about 45 minutes. The next steps were what made me nervous.

To get quality prints the printer surface must be level with relation to the print head track. There are various end stops and leveling screws to adjust. Using a piece of printer paper as a gap gauge, I just followed the instructions and had the print bed leveled in about 20 minutes. There is also a test print pattern that prints two layers of plastic around the base plate to let you make sure the level is right on. Everything must be kept clean and adjusted as with any precision bit of gear, but overall I was impressed with the design.

The printer ships with an octopus test print that was my first object. I loaded up the file and hit print. The printer ran for about an hour and at the end I had the print shown below!

2014-08-14 22.01.49

What's Next

I've got some plans for what to print next. Currently I'm designing some new brackets to hold sensors in place during experiments and a few new parts like shields and pulleys to improve the quality of some of our demonstration apparatuses in the lab. I'm sure some of the results will end up as their own blog posts, but you can always see what's new by following me on Twitter (@geo_leeman). I also would like to thank Hess energy and Shell energy for their support of various aspects of these projects and of course the National Science Foundation for supporting me and many aspects of my lab research. Everything I've said is of course my own opinion and does not reflect the views of any of those funding organizations. Next post we will likely return to more general topics like seeing trends in data or go back and look at more Doppler radar experiments.


I was able to print my first laboratory parts, a set of brackets to make a magnetic holder for a displacement transducer.  I will be posting the cad files to my github account under an open license.


Napa Valley Earthquake - Aug. 24, 2014

As I'm sure you've heard/read by now, there was a moderate earthquake in the Napa Valley region of California earlier today. At 3:20 AM a fault ruptured producing a magnitude 6.0, the largest for that area since 1989. So far the damage pictures I've seen coming out of the area show moderate to severe structure damage on older structures and lots of toppled book shelves and wine racks.

This earthquake has nearly a textbook slip pattern or focal mechanism. The plot below is often called the "beach ball plot" and is a way to represent how the fault moved. Without going into the details of how we construct a plot like this, we can simply interpret what we see. This plot shows a traditional strike-slip motion. This means that the plates slid past each other laterally with little motion up and down on the fault. This doesn't mean that there will be no up and down motion as the seismic waves propagate though!

Focal Mechanism Solution (

Focal Mechanism Solution (

We can also interpret from this beach ball that the strike-slip motion was right-lateral. If we were standing out in the ocean looking towards the other side of the fault inland California, we would see things shift to the right. This makes sense with the tectonics there as the pacific plate is grinding northwest past the North American plate. The locked plates bend and deform storing elastic strain energy, then finally fail, snapping into a state of lower stress. I've shown this elastic property of rocks before, but we have yet to really discuss the earthquake cycle in detail. Maybe one day soon I'll do some demonstrations about that though!

The final piece of the earthquake story I want to show you is a movie of the ground motion experienced at a seismometer in the Marconi Conference Center, Marshall, CA. This video shows what we would see if we could track a piece of the ground in 3D and watch it's motion as different seismic waves go by. There is lots of information in this plot, but for now just notice the large amounts of motion!  This is three minutes of data with 4 ground positions recorded per second in real time, then sped up.

As always, if you do happen to live in an earthquake prone area, be sure to have a plan, have an emergency kit, and always be prepared for any natural disaster!


Mythbusting: Cooling a Drink with a Wet Paper Towel

While reading one of the many pages claiming to have "15 Amazing Life Hacks" or something similar, I found a claim about quickly cooling a drink that deserved some investigation.  The post claimed that to quickly cool your favorite drink you should wrap the bottle/can in a wet paper towel and put it in the freezer.  Supposedly this would quickly cool the drink, faster than just the freezer.  My guess is that the thought process says evaporative cooling is the culprit.  This is why we sweat, evaporating water does indeed cool the surface.  Would water evaporate into the cold, but dry freezer air? Below we'll look at a couple of experiments and decide if this idea works!

We will attack this problem with two approaches.  First I'll use two identical pint glasses filled with water and some temperature sensors, then we'll actually put glass bottles in and measure just the end result.  While the myth concerns bottles, I want to be able to monitor the temperature during the cooling cycle without opening the bottles.  For that we'll use the pint glasses.  

First I had to build the temperature sensors.  The sensors are thermistors from DigiKey since they are cheap and relatively accurate as well.  To make them fluid safe, I attached some three-lead wire and encapsulated the connections with hot-glue.  The entire assembly was then sealed up with heat-shrink tubing.  I modified code from an Adafruit tutorial on thermistors and calibrated the setup.  

To make sure that both sensors had a similar response time, we need to do a simple control test.  I placed both probes in a mug of hot water right beside each other.  We would expect to see the same cooling at points so close together, so any offset between the two should be constant.  We also expect the cooling to follow a logarithmic pattern.  This is because the rate of heat transfer is proportion to the temperature difference between the water and the environment (totally ignoring the mug and any radiative/convective transfer).  So when the water is much hotter than the air, it will cool quickly, but when it's only slightly hotter than the air it will take much longer to cool the same amount.  

Mug Cooling Photo

Plotting the data, we see exactly the expected result.  Both sensors quickly rise to the water temperature, then the water cools over a couple of hours.  The noisy segments of data about 0.25 hrs, 0.75 hrs, and 1.75 hrs in are likely interference from the building air conditioning system.  


If we plot the temperature difference between the sensors it should be constant since they are sensing the same thing.  These probes look to be about dead on after calibration.  Other than the noisy segment of data, they are always within 0.5 degrees of each other.  Now we can move on to the freezer test.


I used two identical pint glasses and made thermocouple supports with cardboard.  One glass was wrapped in tap water damped paper towel, the other left as a control.  Both were inserted into the freezer at the same time and the temperature monitored.  The water was initially the same temperature, but the readings quickly diverged.  The noisy data segments reappear at fixed intervals suggesting that the freezer was turning on and off.  The temperature difference between the sensors grew very quickly, meaning that the wrapped glass was cooling more slowly than the unwrapped glass.  This is the opposite of the myth! 



Next I placed two identical, room temperature bottles of soda in the freezer, again with one wrapped and one as a control.  After 30 minutes in the freezer, the results showed that the bottles and their contents were practically identical in temperature.  The wrapped bottle was slightly warmer, but it was within the resolution of the instruments (thermocouple and IR sensor).  I did this test multiple times and always got temperatures within 1 degree of each other, but not consistently favoring one bottle.

So what's happening here? Well, I think that the damp paper towel is actually acting as a jacket for the beverage.  Much like covering yourself when it's cold outside, the damp paper towel must be cooled, then the beverage can cool.  Adding that extra thermal mass and extra layer for the heat to diffuse through.  To provide another test of that hypothesis I again tested bottles with a control and a foam drink cooler around the base.  The foam cooler did indeed slow the cooling, the bottle being several degrees warmer than the control.

2014-08-13 17.56.28

The last question is why did the test with the glasses show such a pronounced difference, but the bottle test show no difference? My best guess is that the pint glass was totally wrapped vertically and that bottle had the neck exposed still.  Another difference could be the thickness of the towel layer and the water content of the towels.  

The Conclusion: BUSTED! Depending on how you wrap the paper towel it will either have no effect or slow down the cooling of your favorite drink.  

Let me know any other myths I should test! You can also keep up to date with projects and future posts by following me on twitter (@geo_leeman).

Arduino Code:

// which analog pin to connect
// resistance at 25 degrees C
// temp. for nominal resistance (almost always 25 C)
// how many samples to take and average, more takes longer
// but is more 'smooth'
#define NUMSAMPLES 15
// The beta coefficient of the thermistor (usually 3000-4000)
#define BCOEFFICIENT 3950
// the value of the 'other' resistor
#define SERIESRESISTOR1 9760
#define SERIESRESISTOR2 9790

int samples1[NUMSAMPLES];
int samples2[NUMSAMPLES];

void setup(void) {

void loop(void) {
uint8_t i;
float average1;
float average2;

// take N samples in a row, with a slight delay
for (i=0; i< NUMSAMPLES; i++) {
samples1[i] = analogRead(THERMISTOR1PIN);
samples2[i] = analogRead(THERMISTOR2PIN);

// average all the samples out
average1 = 0;
average2 = 0;
for (i=0; i< NUMSAMPLES; i++) {
average1 += samples1[i];
average2 += samples2[i];
average1 /= NUMSAMPLES;
average2 /= NUMSAMPLES;

//Serial.print("Average analog reading ");

// convert the value to resistance
average1 = 1023 / average1 - 1;
average1 = SERIESRESISTOR1 / average1;

average2 = 1023 / average2 - 1;
average2 = SERIESRESISTOR2 / average2;
//Serial.print("Thermistor resistance ");

float steinhart;
steinhart = average1 / THERMISTORNOMINAL; // (R/Ro)
steinhart = log(steinhart); // ln(R/Ro)
steinhart /= BCOEFFICIENT; // 1/B * ln(R/Ro)
steinhart += 1.0 / (TEMPERATURENOMINAL + 273.15); // + (1/To)
steinhart = 1.0 / steinhart; // Invert
steinhart -= 273.15; // convert to C


steinhart = average2 / THERMISTORNOMINAL; // (R/Ro)
steinhart = log(steinhart); // ln(R/Ro)
steinhart /= BCOEFFICIENT; // 1/B * ln(R/Ro)
steinhart += 1.0 / (TEMPERATURENOMINAL + 273.15); // + (1/To)
steinhart = 1.0 / steinhart; // Invert
steinhart -= 273.15; // convert to C(steinhart);

//Serial.println(" *C");