I’ve previously posted on the importance of accomplishing science with MacGyveresque inventiveness, but even McGyver needed the right tools to get the job done. My own experiments would never be possible without the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry’s student machine shop. Phil Simon, head of the college’s Liquid Air Plant, is kind enough to train graduate students and postdocs in the skills necessary to form metals and plastics with sets of different tools into whatever an apparatus demands. After passing the machine shop class, I had full access to the incredible array of tools within. Though the student shop once took up an entire floor of Gilman Hall (what is now the Pitzer Center), it is now squeezed into an annex to the main machine shop in the basement of Tan Hall. Still, new tools are still being added (all thanks to the attention of Phil Simon and some support from Toolerant) and the shop gets significant use from the school’s physical chemists.
I want this post to serve as a tour of some of the amazing machines in the shop and the ways that I use them; to facilitate that, I’ll use some of my own photographs.
When learning to use the tools in the shop, the drill press was one of the first to which I was exposed. It might not be as exciting and complicated as a lathe or milling machine, but if I want to put a hole in something, nine times out of ten I’ll start at a drill press.
The drill press wouldn’t be much good without bits, and the shop has a plethora. Below the standard (if enormous) drill bits in this picture are an array of hole saws for cutting larger-diameter holes in thin material.
My favorite tool in the shop is the lathe. By spinning a piece quickly relative to a fixed cutting tool, the lathe creates objects with radial symmetry very precisely. I’ve personally used it to create a variety of small sample holders and pistons.
This tray holds the parts necessary to use the lathe. On the right are mounts that hold the cutting tool in place; on the left is the key to a good piece: lubricating oil. The friction of cutting metal generates an enormous amount of heat. Reduce the friction, reduce the heat.
The milling machine is likely the most potent tool in the whole shop. Like a kind of combination between a drill press and a lathe, it cuts planes and grooves at carefully-controlled orientations. It’s particularly helpful for constructing custom mounting brackets. (In spectroscopy, many companies sell the appropriate mirrors or crystals, but I find myself improvising in order to mount them in the correct configuration in my lab.)
The milling machine also has an autofeeder. In much the same way as the lathe’s autofeeder, it allows for putting a gorgeous finish on a piece by moving the cutting tool at a very steady rate over the metal.
The College of Chemistry’s student machine shop offers me an array of possible approaches to produce whatever part my experiment requires. That kind of flexibility dramatically speeds up any experiment. More than that, though, the flexibility means that I can let my imagination go a bit even when I’m just conceiving experiments; I know that I’ll be able to make them work with the help of the machine shop.
The images in this post were taken by the author using a technique called High Dynamic Range imaging, or HDR. Please follow the link if you’d like to learn more about the technique. To see more of the authors photography, please visit decaseconds.com.