Nov.28, 2014 | By Alec

For most of us, 3D printing is simply a fun tool and creative outlet for any little fun project that we come across. But it goes without saying that 3D printing is also a potent innovative manufacturing technology for its ability to produce unique objects rapidly and affordably. And while most of us might not be up to the task of potent innovation, you'll find plenty of that among the entries of the Hackaday Prize Competition.

And you'd be surprised how many designers and hackers are resorting to 3D printing, like the project that ultimately won the fifth prize in 2014's competition: the ramanPi, by the mysterious hacker fl@c@ (to be pronounced as 'flatcat'). By his own admission, he (assuming it's a he) isn't in the habit of sharing his work publicly, but he decided to participate in the competition as he felt his latest 3D printed project could really make a difference.

So what exactly is a ramanPi? If its name reminds you of the Raspberry Pi computer board, you're on the right track, as it's a 3D printed Raman Spectrometer powered by the cheap, portable and multipurpose Raspberry Pi. But the real question is 'What's a spectrometer?'. In a nutshell, it's an instrument that can measure electromagnetic light and is used in laboratories to identify the makeup of materials.

However, they also have a far wider range of applications, as they can for example be used to identify impurities in water or other drinks, determining whether or not something is drinkable. As the hacker explained, 'Imagine the keyboard in front of you. It is made of several elements; it's probably plastic, some metal, some silicon, and so on. Now imagine a glass of water, a tasty beverage or your favorite soft drink. So now let's ask what's in that glass. you probably know there's a bit of water, and a lot of other components.. What if you look at that tasty beverage, and want to find out what chemical compounds are in it?. So take a sample of it, and insert that into our Raman Spectrometer. Then run an analysis on it and bam! You can see that your tasty beverage has C2H6O, carbon dioxide, water, etc.'

In a nutshell, it can be used to determine the composition of items and has scientific potential (does the composition of this change when using this method?) and practical, real life applications as well (is this edible?). It could thus be used in every corner of the world to improve the lives of everyone. Well it could theoretically, as spectrometers quickly cost tens of thousands of dollars and are rarely seen outside of research facilities. Until now! For flatcat's 3D printed design is far more affordable and just and effective, thus having some real world potential.

The last two images show the raman spectrometer as incorporated into its casing.

This ramanPi revolves around, as the name suggests, Raman spectroscopy. Raman refers to a scientific phenomenon involving scattering light photons. Essentially, most photons scatter following a pattern known as 'Rayleigh scattering', but about 1 in a million particles scatter non-elastically, in the 'Raman scattering' pattern. Raman spectroscopy is capable of identifying the radiation of those photons as it is absorbed and re-emitted by materials. And every material it comes into contact with comes with its own unique 'signature'. These effects are created with a specific laser, and the precise pattern that is generated by these photons practically reveal the signature of whatever it comes into contact with, allowing scientists to identify even very minute particles.


As flatcat himself explained, 'Imagine. The idea that shining a light on a sample will yield data as to its composition and vibrational state is nothing short of amazing. And this open source system delivers all of that within reach of whomever wants it now. Something that was not possible before.' Moreover, it's an identification technique that is highly sensitive (requiring only small quantities of whatever you want to test), unambiguous quick and doesn't even damage the material that is being tested. Really only its price is what's preventing its widespread usage, that is until flatcat's turned up with his 3D printed version.

Moreover, it features inexpensive 3D printed parts and open-source technologies. As flatcat explained, 'it side-steps the expensive optics normally required for raman spectroscopy. Ordinarily, an expensive notch filter would be used which is cost prohibitive for most average people. My system avoids this cost by using two less expensive edge filters which when combined in the correct manner provide the same benefit as the notch filter. And that at the minimal cost of a little extra computing time.'

Practically, it simply revolves around loading a test sample into the ramanPi. The device's laser is powered up behind a shutter. Once optimal settings are achieved, the sample is exposed to the laser, and the light that subsequently scatters is collected, filtered and analysed. This process is repeated with both of the filters until enough data is collected to match the data to a substance in an online database. And that, in a nutshell, is how the ramanPi can identify the specific additives in your drink.

Of course, a lengthy design and production process preceded its creation, but flatcat is confident that a larger number of spectrometers can be relatively easily produced, potentially making this a marketable product. It only cost a fraction of a commercial price to build, and reportedly features 'very easy source components and 3D parts printable on even entry level printers. […] It is completely scalable to fit almost any budget. Many of the components can be used for other purposes outside this system or project. It presents a great learning experience for anyone who is interested in electronics, science, physics, lasers, chemistry, and so on!'

While not yet sharing a reproducible design, flatcat has said to stay true to open-source principles and invites others to follow his example. The whole computing section is centered on a raspberryPi, connected to the internet via WiFi adapter. This way, it can communicate with only databases to find a match for the materials, and is simply operated through a laptop or other pc.


An artist's rendition of the spectrometer in action.

The design of the spectrometer itself can be, or so he feels, easily reproduced. ' For high volume production you could use injection molding to make the 3D parts. 3D printing for lower quantities would be a totally acceptable option. The optics are right off the shelf and can be purchased individually or in bulk from companies like Edmund Optics. The electronics are very easy to source and they will be integrated down to two boards for the whole system very soon. The CCD is inexpensive as well and is the same version commercial systems use. It is a complex device, but there is really not much to it in this sense.'

Could this mean that commercially-viable and affordable spectrometers are just around the corner? While the hacker himself remains unclear about where he'd like to take this project, its open-source nature and 3D printing reproducibility makes us very hopeful. Considering the technology's potential in so many fields – mineral identification, cancer research, biological studies, education and simply improving the quality of life in the third world – it really is revolutionary.

For more about the ramanPi, check out these videos:



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j_leonardo_perez wrote at 7/15/2016 6:40:05 PM:

If this is opensource why can we all just work on this idea together?

fl@c@ wrote at 12/10/2014 11:19:41 AM:

@Suro The price estimate is documented quite a bit....it depends ultimately on the version you build, but can be as cheap as around $350 or so.. Since this is my project, I can say that I wish I could get it finished in a few weeks..It has taken 6 months working alone to get to where it is now... a few weeks might be a little overly optimistic..But I'll try! :) The project is actually 100% open source..!! Everything you need to build it or edit it is located in the gitHub repo....3D files, firmware, software, schematics, board layouts...everything...including the sources...not just the .stl files, etc.. One of the project MAIN goals was to make this completely open....for everyone..if you don't like a certain aspect, or want to use a different part...the files are all there...Build a dual laser version with 532nm and a 785nm....make a version with a transmission grating... or go with what I designed...it's all up to you..! Take a look at the project page...! =) http://hackaday.io/project/1279 And thanks to 3ders.org for this awesome writeup!!

fl@c@ wrote at 12/10/2014 11:18:23 AM:

@Suro The price estimate is documented quite a bit....it depends ultimately on the version you build, but can be as cheap as around $350 or so.. Since this is my project, I can say that I wish I could get it finished in a few weeks..It has taken 6 months working alone to get to where it is now... a few weeks might be a little overly optimistic..But I'll try! :) The project is actually 100% open source..!! Everything you need to build it or edit it is located in the gitHub repo....3D files, firmware, software, schematics, board layouts...everything...including the sources...not just the .stl files, etc.. One of the project MAIN goals was to make this completely open....for everyone..if you don't like a certain aspect, or want to use a different part...the files are all there...Build a dual laser version with 532nm and a 785nm....make a version with a transmission grating... or go with what I designed...it's all up to you..! Take a look at the project page...! =) http://hackaday.io/project/1279 And thanks to 3ders.org for this awesome writeup!!

Suro wrote at 11/29/2014 2:47:55 PM:

Very interesting, and I'd love to have a Raman, but without a buildable guide, and a price estimate ($1000? $3000?), it's not that useful to me. I look forward to seeing a proper release in a few weeks, hopefully. Longer than that, and something's up - if you claim you're going to open source something, and have diagrams/parts that detailed, there's no reason not to open-source your 90% design, and get some help from others out there who might have/know something you don't.



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