Category Archives: Bio-hacking

Photon Extrusion

Our old Makerbot case sitting in the scrap parts bin has been resurrected as a grow case for my terrariums! All it took was an afternoon, some scrap plastic sheets, a few LED strips + power supply, and liberal use of a hot glue gun.

ready to go

Photon Extrusion

printing some plants

Photon Extrusion

lights off

Apply Now: AMRI Summer 2014 Fellowships

We have an open call for Summer 2014 Fellowships at Advanced Manufacturing Research Institute (AMRI), hosted at Rice University in the department of Bioengineering.

We are soliciting applications for the following projects:

Project 1: e-NABLE 3D Printed Prosthetic Devices

In collaboration with the worldwide e-NABLE group, and Gloria Gogola, M.D. at Shriners Hospital for Children, Fellows will aid in the design, 3D printing, testing, and refinement of open-source prosthetic hand and finger designs. This unique fellowship will bring 3D printing into the clinical setting, working closely with Dr. Gogola and her patients in need.

Project 2: Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

Fellows will augment and refine the open SLS design pioneered by Andreas Bastian last year. SLS machines typically cost $50k or more, we built ours for under $15k. This year we will focus on powder manufacturing and powder handling, as well as characterization of SLS parts via scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and mechanical testing.

Project 3: OLED 3D Photolithography of Living Tissues

Related to Anderson Ta’s exciting digital light projection (DLP) photolithography last year, Fellows will investigate and program organic light emitting diode (OLED) screens as a light source for 3D photolithographic printing of living tissues. Chemical functionalization of glass surfaces will also be investigated to passivate the screen surface and aid in detachment and 3D printing from the light source surface.

Project 4: Open Source Ink Jet Printing of Bacteria

A continuation of Steve Kelly’s inkshield augmentation of RepRap motherboards to print living bacteria, Fellows will investigate fluid mechanics, python scripting, and multicolor printing to create interacting bacterial colonies on top of and within agar gels. Fellows will also learn how to insert genes of interest into bacterial colonies for protein production. Steve’s 2013 AMRI Presentation is available here.

Check out all the details, and be sure to apply by May 15th:

Questions can be directed to

New Hydroponics Set Up!

I finally finished the hydroponic garden I’ve been building at Hive76 for the past few months.   The plants have just started to sprout, so it will be at least another month before they can be harvested.  But when they are ready, if you want to take some cuttings for yourself at open house you’re more than welcome to.  Right now I am growing basil, thyme, oregano and morning glories.

Unfortunately, I’m spending the rest of the summer in Germany so I won’t be at open house to answer any questions in person, but I will be back in september. In the mean time I’ll start posting the blueprints of the hydrogarden, so anyone will be able to build one if they want.  Hope to have more of the details next week!

Thanks, to Pete for agreeing to watch my plants while I’m gone, Rob for letting me steal his wood and carpentry techniques to build the frame, and Jordan for helping to design the caster flat bed and general support!

Hydroponic garden inside of its wooden frame.


Drexel Design Futures, Bacterial Cellulose (and a world record, maybe?)

BC_Screen - cropped

Super-wide screen made from a single large sheet of bacterial cellulose “paper”

PJ and a number of other Hive members have been fortunate enough to participate in preparations for the Drexel Design Futures Lab “Projects 12/13” exhibition.  PJ was almost certainly the most involved Hive contributor — he helped with the development of a number of key software elements for several of the exhibits.


Side view of a BC culture, showing the cellulose pellicle (white “gel” on surface), growth medium and some bacteria/yeast colonies (dark brown structures).  The bubbles are CO2 produced by the yeast.

I wound up getting involved in the creation of a special display screen that was part of an interactive piece which allows people to “play” with a computer model of bacterial swarms.  This piece was part of Tashia Tucker’s exhibit, and she wanted an “organic looking” display surface. After some brainstorming that included condemnations of the high price of silicone etc., PJ suggested bacterial cellulose.  What!?  The idea of a movie screen made by real bacteria to show movies of simulated bacteria was too “meta” to pass up.

I had grown some fairly large sheets of bacterial cellulose in the past, and was interested in having an excuse to grow something even larger — so sign me up!  Tashia wanted a sheet that started out about 4′x8′ so that the final screen could be cropped to dimensions that were about the size of a slightly gigantic person.

Yikes — this was literally a tall order.  Bacterial Cellulose (BC) is created by the same organisms that are used to ferment Kombucha — in fact, the “Shroom” or “Scoby” in a Kombucha culture is a big lump of cellulose.  So this was simple, in principle, but the scale of the piece left a lot of novel details that had to be worked out.

Bioreactor Vessel: I remembered talking to Scott Beibin a few years back about whether BC could be produced artisanally in large sheets.  BC sheets will generally grow to cover the entire surface of any container they inhabit.  In fact, Scott speculated that there was probably no limit to the size of sheets that could be grown, and suggested (flippantly, I suspect) that you could even use a kiddie pool.  $25 at Target, thank-you-very-much.

Nutrients: This is kombucha, right?  So one cup of sugar per gallon .. hmm .. and three inches of fluid * 8′ * 4′ makes, … um .. 8 cubic feet of water which is … lessee … about 60 gallons, so 60 cups of sugar is about 30 lbs.  And we need some tea, so let’s say 200 tea bags.  And we can toss in two gallons of vinegar and a half-cup of activated yeast to kick-start the fermentation.  All available at your neighborhood grocery store for $30 or $40 or so.

Grow Site: BC cultures can get pretty rank, and this grow was going to consume a lot of floor space, so an indoor location was out of the question.  It also had to be close enough to Drexel to allow for occasional visits in order to care for the culture.   My sister was kind enough to offer us a secluded spot in her back yard.


“Bioreactordome”, otherwise known as a tent with a kiddie pool that contains an over-sized kombucha culture.

Shelter: The BC cultures are pretty robust, but we needed a way to protect the pool from the elements.  Target wins again.  Tent to fit our kiddie pool with a little room to spare?  $90.  Shoving the oversized, semi-inflated pool through the undersized door?  Priceless.

There were miscellaneous other items — baking soda to neutralize the incredibly strong acetic acid in the harvested BC, buckets for mixing etc., plastic sheets to spread the harvested cellulose out etc. etc.  And there was a day or two of panic when, two weeks into the grow, there was no evidence that we were growing anything but a fetid swamp in a kiddie pool (nothing special about that).   Then the BC started growing with a vengeance, and we harvested it about three weeks into the venture — just in time to dry it and mount it for the exhibition.

A week later, we managed to pull a second sheet out.  This second sheet was qualitatively different from the first — it was generally thinner and weaker, and it had a few holes — but it was more uniform in the sense that it had a single, well-defined layer.  By this time Tashia was a pro with the material.  She deftly cut a strip of BC from one edge of the sheet, sliced the strip into a few square patches and slapped a patch over every void in the sheet.  BC is miraculous that way.  Since it starts out as a hydrogel, you can repair defects by placing a patch of “good” gel over any holes.  The two sheets will fuse together at a molecular level as they dry,  resulting in a repair that is about as strong as the original sheet and nearly invisible.

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat: At any rate, I’m going to claim, solely on the basis of “this is the biggest sheet of BC I have ever seen after scouring the Internet for big sheets”, that this may be a world record of sorts.  If there’s a larger sheet out there, I’m interested in learning about it (and will gladly relinquish the title).  Even if this actually is a “record”, it’s a title that we expect to lose at some point, since the key to a larger sheet is simply a larger pool (and more tea etc.).


Leaders of the 3D Printing Revolution

The Creator’s Project released a new video, and our sugar printing, gelation, and blood pumping was featured in it! Trackback is to The project goal is to unify artists and technologists and this video is focused on 3D Printing:

And I just got done with a talk at ScienceOnTap Philly! It was a truly excellent night! Special thanks to the Organizers and also the Hivers who came out or emailed in their support! You peeps are the best.

Here are some pics via the Twittersphere. Thanks to the photographers for posting!

New Hydroponics Prototype!

New hydroponic setup… Let’s just say my carpentry skills are a little rusty.

So here is a quick update on my hydroponics setup at Hive76.  In my previous post I uploaded a video on a hydroponic garden I built in my basement two years ago.  My goal was to build the setup with as little moving parts as possible to ensure the garden required little maintenance.  With the hydroponic garden I am building at Hive76 I decided to keep to the spirit of simplicity but a completely different approach with it.

With my latest version I am using medical grade IV bags to store the water above the plants.  Then by attaching a mechanism to the IV bags known as a ‘flow controller’, gravity pulls the water from the bags to the plants below at a consistent rate.  The rate at which water flows through that controller be anywhere from 5 to 250 ml / hr.

The IV bags and flow controllers are great because they are very inexpensive (one IV bag and flow controller cost me a few dollars from  Plus they can potentially be reused since they are being used on plants and not humans if you are careful to prevent contamination. But possible the most useful thing about using IV bags is that they require no energy to operate, which further reduces costs.

IV bags filled with water.

To evenly distribute the water that is supplied by the IV bags to the plants, I put the plants within a medium of rockwool cubes that are about 1 cubic centimeter in size.  The rockwool essentially acts as a sponge that takes the water that is supplied by the IV drip and evenly distributes it to all the plants within the container.

I’m testing my current hydroponic setup on spinach seeds at the moment.  The plants are still in their infancy so I have not added nutrients to their water supply yet but I plan to do so in about a week(adding too high a concentration of nutrients to young plants can damage their roots).  My short term goal is to monitor the spinach in my hydroponic setup through its entire life cycle, taking general notes along the way.  After the plants have finished their life cycle I want to take some time to build a second prototype and post its plans on Hive’s webpage. Hopefully by that point, the system will be a useful platform for scientific experimentation. Then the real fun can begin!!!

Gravity flow controller: controls the flow rate of liquid from the IV bags.

Germinating seed in rockwool and temperature probe.

Hydroponics at Hive76

My current project at Hive76 is working on indoor hydroponic systems.   The project comes from an interest in plants that I picked up from tending to my mother’s  garden as a child.   My family was fortunate to have enough land for a sizable garden when I was growing up, but now that I live near center city Philadelphia, good plots of land can be difficult to find. So I naturally turned to hydroponics because it is not limited by land area the same way that traditional farming is.

Hydroponics has the potential to revolutionize farming as we know it because it allows for plants to be grown in highly controlled environments.  This means that the light, water, and nutrients that plants need to thrive can be optimized to promote rapid growth while reducing waste and pollution.   Also, as mentioned before, hydroponics systems be built vertically instead of just horizontally, which is a huge benefit in dense urban environments like Philadelphia.

Even with all the potential benefits of hydroponics, it has yet to become a competitor with traditional farming in the open market.  There are many reasons for this, one reason is that the cost of lighting in an indoor hydroponic system will always cost more than traditional farming, which gets its light for free from the sun.  (Luckily the cost of lighting is dropping all the time with advancements in florescent bulbs and LED technology.) Another reason is that there is a lot of politics around farming that doesn’t favor the development of hydroponics.

Despite all the this, hydroponics is still holds a lot of potential to revolutionize agriculture.  It is also a great way to learn about plant science.  I’m particularly interested in using hydroponics to develop a low cost platform for amateur science experiments.   The hope is that by empowering people with the right tools , the next breakthrough in agriculture might come from a high-school student’s science fair project!

The hydroponic system that I am building at Hive76 is very much in the early stages. In the meantime, I wanted to post a video on a previous hydroponic system that I built in my basement 2 years ago.   It works by flooding the roots of the plants with water supplied by a reservoir below.

Enjoy and stay tuned for updates!

Open Source is a Philosophy, Not a Checkbox

I just got back from the 2012 Open Science Summit which took place in Mountain View, CA. It was an excellent meeting and a great opportunity to meet others using open tools and ideas to forward Science! Check out the list of talks and you can also access videos of all of the talks. And you can also read more about the speakers.

I gave a talk too where I delved deeper into the science behind our work with RepRap for research in Regenerative Medicine and I made the case that open source is a philosophy, not a checkbox. Try not to get caught up in semantics of open vs. not-open (e.g. one could try to label Arduino as not an “open” platform since it has proprietary Atmel chips on the board). Instead, try to think of open projects as those in which you see people as collaborators (“open”), not customers (“closed”). We all have many things we can learn from each other, and who doesn’t want more collaborators to learn science together? Some interesting Q&A at the end too.