4D Printing is Here

By Anupum Pant

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We had just started getting comfortable with printing objects in 3D, and 4D printing is already here. Early this year, in the month of April, Skylar Tibbits, an architect, designer and computer scientist at MIT, gave a revolutionary demonstration explaining their advances in the field of 4D printing at a TED conference. This was an initial proposal and it got things moving at a rapid pace.

Side note: In the world of 3D printing:

What is 4D printing?

At first 4D printing sounds like a catch phrase, it isn’t really just that. 4D printing is actually 1D better than 3D printing and it aims at making objects out of a 3D printer, that can reconfigure themselves into useful shapes, on their own. For instance, think of a non-living stick changing itself into a 3D cube as time passes. In short, 4D printing will enable us to create living objects without any living cells, micro-processors, chips or batteries involved. Sounds simple enough, but the promises are nothing less than extraordinary.

In the TED talk attached below, Skylar explains how a string of plastic placed in water can turn itself into the letters MIT. But, this was something that happened back in April. Things have moved further.

A few days back, Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder revealed a successful test of their 4D printing technology. They were able to print out flat objects using normal plastic combined with a smart material which was able to turn into a cube on its own. Cubes are just the start.

According to scientists, in the future, 4D printing will probably churn out smart car bodies that would heal automatically, smart soldier uniforms and advanced building materials. Imagine a camouflage material that changes to match the surroundings, that could be the future. Or a pipe that contracts and expands to move water without pumps. Or a building material that builds itself into a structure. 4D printing could probably best suited for building in an extremely hostile environment like space. The possibilities are endless.

But, let us not get ahead of ourselves. It is almost impossible to predict what we’ll actually see in the future. Things have just started to happen in the field of 4D printing. But, it sure looks amazing. What will you build?

Gomboc – An Object That Never Falls

By Anupum Pant

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There’d be hardly anyone among us who hasn’t played with a roly-poly toy during their childhoods. If you know it by some other name, you could think of it as a toy that never falls, no matter how hard you hit it, and sells in variants which look like this. That isn’t exactly what a Gomboc is, but you get an idea about what it does – It does not fall. For more, read on.

What is a Gomboc?

A Gomboc (Gömböc) is a mathematical 3-D shape which has only one position in which it can stand and is made up of a single material  of uniform density. If you try to make it stand in some other way, or try to knock it down, it moves back to that single stable position, gradually. When placed on its side, it starts rocking magically, gains momentum, straightens itself and gradually comes to rest in that single position. Here is a video of a Gomboc doing its thing.

A Gomboc is an object surrounded by a number of complex curves, it takes an immense amount of accuracy to get the surfaces right. An accuracy of  the orders of around 1/10th of a human hair’s thickness is required for it to work properly. For better, people have started 3D printing these complex shapes.

The world’s largest Gomboc was displayed in China in the year 2010 which measured around 3 meters in all directions.

Terrestrial tortoises, who use a similarly shaped shell to get on their feet when turned upside down, were using it long before humans had found a way to construct it. The first time we made it, was in the year 2006. Evolution got there first!

How is it different than a Roly-Poly toy?
A roly-poly toy usually has an internal counter weight made up of a heavier material. But a Gomboc is made up of a single material.

Uses: Use it as a paper weight or to gift it to your friend who is a math geek. Tortoises use it to save their own lives.

Where can I buy one?
You can get one for yourself from an official website of the inventors – Here.

Longest Continuously Running Experiment – 83 Years and Counting

By Anupum Pant

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An experiment so slow that a professor overseeing it, died without having seen the results for half a century! The Pitch Drop experiment, started by Professor Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland in the year 1930, is the probably slowest science experiment and also holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest continuously running experiment ever.

What is the experiment?

It is an experiment designed to measure the flow of a solid looking piece (image) which is actually an extremely viscous liquid (actually a Viscoelastic Polymer) with a viscosity of approximately 230 billion times that of water. The name used for this class of extremely viscous liquids is, Pitch – Bitumen, Asphalt, Resin and Rosin are a few examples (not Glass). These things are so viscous that you can strike them with a hammer and see them shatter into sharp flakes (like glass), but it flows. The experiment is explained in detail, in the first few minutes of this radio show attached below. (the second half is pretty interesting too, but that is for some other day)

Other unbelievable materials previously covered in this series – Aerogels and Superhydrophobic surfaces.

Side note: The overseer of this experiment, Prof. John Mainstone actually lived through the drops of pitch falling three times, but unfortunately missed watching it happen every time (for 3 times in 50 years). In all, 8 drops have fallen since 1930.

  1. 1979 – He missed it because he wasn’t in the laboratory for the weekend.
  2. 1988 – Missed it because he went out for a tea break.
  3. 2000 – A camera was installed as a precautionary measure, the equipment malfunctioned; missed again!

He recently died waiting to see it in action. Since then, three web cameras have been installed as a fool proof measure to record the extremely rare event. You can watch it happening online here, although you might have to wait for several years to see it happening. (To confirm the live stream, look at that clock in in it and confirm with time here). There is also a time-lapse from 28th April 2012 – 10th April 2013 compressed into a 10-second-long video of the drop forming, embedded below.

A parallel experiment running at Trinity College, Dublin also wasn’t able to capture the rare scientific event on camera in spite of several drops falling since the commissioning of the experiment (1944). Finally, after 70 years of patient wait, on July 11, 2013 it was recorded on camera.