The hashtag #ReviewForScience has revealed surprising new uses for everyday objects in the lab. Alane Lim highlights her favourites.
In an episode of the original series of MacGyver, starring Richard Dean Anderson as the secret-agent-cum-improviser who “busts bad guys and solves problems,” Anderson’s character builds an airplane out of bamboo and trash bags to make a getaway.
That particular contraption might not be entirely plausible, but the thought is there. You can find surprising uses for things originally intended for different purposes (making toy trucks our of shoe boxes and bottle caps, for example) .
And repurposing everyday items for the lab, industry, and everyday life can save money uncover new insights, and help the environment.
My lab helped to find that Blu-ray discs could improve the absorption of solar cells, which came about after a fellow graduate student saw pictures of data printed on the bottoms of CD-Rs and noticed they were surprisingly close to “quasi-random” patterns he was trying to make for solar cells.
We also showed that flexible toy pencils could draw out chemical sensors, triggered by a comment my professor made in a class he was teaching – that drawing a line with a pencil may create many graphene-like particles. This idea was spurred onward by a curious student who wanted to see whether that pencilled line could be used as an electronic material.
Many researchers subsequently left customer reviews about all the different things they have purchased to help out with experiments – a pitcher for weighing gooses and an ice cream scoop for “standardizing” dung for trapping dung beetles.
I asked several of my researcher friends if they used everyday items in their experiments, and they each had their own example. One used an airbrush intended for painting figurines to deposit nanoparticles on a surface, another deployed nail polish to prevent fruit fly brains from drying out, and a third chose condoms to hold pellets that could be further compacted inside a compression machine.
As in many of the examples above, you can use old things to make new discoveries.
However, that doesn’t mean you should go replacing as many lab items as you can with everyday objects. There’s good reason why the words “life hacks” – tricks that promise to improve your life immensely by applying whatever you have available to a new application – don’t usually receive a positive response.
You don’t need to look far to find examples of well-intentioned hacks that just don’t work as well as established methods, like creating a makeshift cupholder with the shoe from your foot.
Furthermore, you may be hard-pressed to find an everyday item that could replace something used for a very specific purpose in lab.
Some of these lower performance products, however, can still find use in other ways, like as initial prototypes or proof-of-concepts for more sophisticated systems, like these robots made of wooden Tinkertoys and a few other bits, or as educational tools for teaching basic scientific principles, such as this Play-Doh circuit that can light up an LED bulb.
And who knows? Maybe, just like MacGyver, one day we’ll jet away into the sky with a plane made of bamboo and trash bags.
Alane Lim is a materials science graduate student at Northwestern University who mainly studies graphene oxide, but has conducted some experiments with the help of everyday items. She is also a science and satire writer who has been published in several outlets, including Northwestern’s Helix Magazine, ThoughtCo, and Slackjaw. You can find her work at www.alanelim.com or follow her @thisisalane