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Monday Watercooler


Close up of bubble wrap

Stress reliever AND boon to science. What else can bubble wrap do?

Tonight, the Watercooler is in solidarity with Colorado Plateau Resistance, which shut down construction at a Utah tar sands mine.

People of the Colorado Plateau shut down construction of a tar sands mine in Utah Aug. 6.

A small band calling themselves Colorado Plateau Resistance swarmed machinery and put their bodies in the way of their path, completely stopping construction of the mine for part of the day.

This direct action is one in a long string of actions organized by people opposed to the mining destruction.

‘The Colorado Plateau and its inhabitants are are under invasion on multiple fronts of the energy industry,’ the group said. ‘This tar sands mine is a bloody blip in a bigger scheme threatening this land, including the reopening of uranium mines that have poisoned indigenous communities for generations; the planned construction of a nuclear generator in Green River, Utah; violent and vast scraping of the land and squandering of sacred water in pursuit of lowest-grade fuel sources like tar sands and oil shale; a new ‘oil’ refinery in Green River perhaps to centralize production and distribution of those super-toxic tar sands and oil shale fuels; and all of this paid for and made possible by the dangerous fracking boom, which is poisoning our air and water and killing the most vulnerable members of our communities, our babies and old people.’

Bubble wrap, a wasteful product (or stress reliever), has found a new use in science labs. From NPR:

Scientists at Harvard University have figured out a way to use these petite pouches as an inexpensive alternate to glass test tubes and culture dishes. They even ran glucose tests on artificial urine and anemia tests on blood, all with the samples sitting inside bubble wrap.

‘Most lab experiments require equipment, like test tubes or 96-well assay plates,’ says chemist George Whitesides, who led the study. ‘But if you go out to smaller villages [in developing countries], these things are just not available.’ One glass test tube can cost between $1 and $5. Bubble wrap, by contrast, is dirt cheap. One square foot of it, with about 100 to 500 bubbles depending on bubble dimensions, costs only 6 cents, Whitesides and his team reported Thursday in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

‘You can take out a roll of bubble wrap, and you have a bunch of little test tubes,’ he says. ‘This is an opportunity to potentially use material that would otherwise have been thrown away.’

Whitesides is a master at converting cheap, everyday materials into lab equipment. He’s made a centrifuge from an egg beater and CD player. And he’s designed a glucose detector from paper and tape.

[…] Whitesides and his team tried injecting blood and chemicals into the clear blisters with a needle and syringe. They then sealed the holes with nail polish. The bubbles held the liquid with no problem. And since the plastic is clear, the team could use the mini-test tubes for tests that involve color changes. For instance, to test for anemia, the scientists added a chemical that changes colors when it reacts with iron in blood. They also successfully grew bacteria and worms inside the bubbles. But to make a good test tube or petri dish, the bubble wrap also needed to be sterile.

So Whitesides’ students filled the plastic bubbles with a solution of food for microorganisms and looked to see if bacteria grew inside. After four days, no microbes appeared. To their surprise, the air and plastic inside the bubbles were completely sterile.

That finding also surprised Michele Barry, a tropical disease doctor at Stanford University, who wasn’t involved in the study. ‘I had no idea that the bubbles themselves were sterile, which is fabulous,” she tells Goats and Soda.

[…[ Labs in poor countries have a great need to store samples, Barry points out. The bubble wrap could also be used to test water for toxic metals, such as mercury, arsenic and lead, she says. But the plastic packaging comes with many limitations. The mini-test tubes must be handled carefully or they’ll pop — literally. And bubble wrap is sensitive to light. It degrades over time.

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Photo by e-magic released under a Creative Commons No Derivatives license.

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Kit OConnell

Kit OConnell

Kit O’Connell is a gonzo journalist and radical troublemaker from Austin, Texas. He is the Associate Editor and Community Manager of Shadowproof. Kit's investigative journalism has appeared in Truthout, MintPress News and