A precautionary approach to health and safety while using awesome, awesome laser cutters in the home.

Holy Mola, Laser Cutters! If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve probably seem some pretty cool projects coming out of my freshly arrived Glowforge laser cutter.

But laser cutters are not all sunshine and cool, wooden hinges. Laser cutters were, until very recently, the domain of industrial fabrication shops with extensive safety systems. As a new generation of low(er) cost, hobby and household cutters enter the market, we need to step back an think critically about the potential health and safety impacts of these incredible machines.

Like I did with 3D printers a few years back, I’m taking a deep dive into the hazards of laser cutters in the home and how to avoid them.

First, the issues of least concern (not because they aren’t bad, just that they’re far less likely to occur).

Fire. Lots of materials can catch fire, including, to no one’s surprise, wood. A fire safety plan will go a long way, but you can avoid ruining your laser cutter by being aware of what materials frequently catch fire. ABS, HDPE, polystyrene and polypropylene, and anything with poor thermal properties is going to ignite rather than cut cleanly. And then you’re going to have a bad day.

Beam escape. If your machine is not well taken care of and well shielded, there’s a small chance the wrong materials or loose connections can result in a beam escape, which can injure the user, bystanders, pets, or anything else that gets in the laser’s path. Most hobby grade lasers have good safety features to prevent this (although cheap knock-off machines are starting to hit the markets that may not be up to par), but monitoring you equipment and keeping it properly maintained will go a long way to avoiding this.

But those aren’t the biggest concerns. Th biggest concern with laser cutters is the byproduct that happens every time you cut, no mater what. That’s right, I’m talking about:

Fumes! 

This is the big one and the issue that I’m most concerned about. Laser cutters haven’t really left industrial settings until now, so we don’t have very good data on chronic exposures of laser cutting fumes, especially on young children and pregnant people. What we do know is that the fumes produced by laser cutter depend heavily on the materials you choose to cut.

All materials will produce fumes when cut, which is why it’s essential that your set-up is well-ventilated. Most hobby cutters have a vent port that you can connect to a dryer vent or to the outside. I actually don’t recommend using a dryer vent. In all the rental houses I’ve lived in, not one has ever had the dryer properly vented, and hooking up to your dryer port might mean that you’re just venting into the crawlspace or the wall, rather than out of you house. Go for the window. There’s no hard and fast rule for how much ventilation you need, other than as much as possible. For 3D printers we recommended that your ventilation system moves 3 times as much air as the volume of the room per hour. For laser cutters, it should probably be more.

Everything you cut is going to release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which is why ventilation is essential. For things like hardwoods and paper products, the VOCs released are comparable to a woodburning stove, frying too much bacon, or sitting around a campfire (though sitting around a campfire will give you a much higher dose). Prolonged exposure can cause respiratory problems and asthma. More complex materials like plywoods and plastics can have some pretty nasty compounds, so you want to make absolutely sure you know what’s going into your laser cutter, be aware of what materials should never, ever go into you household cutter, and always ventilate, ventilate, ventilate.

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Imaginary islands, lobster pain, porgs and puffins: Thursday Afternoon Dredging, January 25th, 2018

Cuttings (short and sweet): 

Spoils (long reads and deep dives):

Please add your own cuttings and spoils in the comments!

If you appreciate my shark research and conservation outreach, please consider supporting me on Patreon! Any amount is appreciated, and supporters get exclusive rewards!

 

Snot Bots for whale health, critical dolphins, lobster considerations, and more! Monday Morning Salvage: January 15, 2018.

Fog Horn (A Call to Action)

Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)

Screen cap of linked tweet.

Ice balls and slush waves.

Paul May via Storyful.

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Applications now open for the 2018 YPRF diversity in elasmobranch science scholarship

The American Elasmobranch Society is the world’s oldest and largest professional association of shark and ray scientists

The American Elasmobranch Society, the world’s oldest and largest professional society focusing on the scientific study and management of sharks and their relatives, is now welcoming applications for the 2nd year of our Young Professional Recruitment Fund diversity initiative. Awardees will be given one year of Society membership, in addition to specialized professional development training, mentorship, and networking opportunities specific to their needs as scientists and professionals from developing nations or historically underrepresented minority groups.  Read More

Fun Science FRIEDay – Au Revoir Cassini

Roughly 20 years ago the Cassini orbiter launched from Cape Canaveral for a seven year journey to the ringed planet Saturn. Towing with it was the Huygens probe, built and maintained by the European Space agency. On its journey to Saturn the orbiter flew by Venus through the asteroid belt, past Jupiter with its giant red eye, before finally arriving at Saturn. After spending countless years investigating Saturn and its moons, today is the culmination of that journey as Cassini begins its death orbit down into Saturn.

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cassini was a triumph of science and engineering, sending back amazing views and increasing the state of knowledge in astronomy. Cassini discovered two previously unknown moons orbiting Saturn (bringing Saturn’s total known moon count to 60), discovered ice plumes from Enceladus (another Saturn moon) via magnetometer, and detached and sent the Huygens probe  down to the surface of Titan (Saturn’s largest moon). The landing of Huygens on Titan is the first and only landing on the surface of a world in the outer solar system.

Cassini orbiter sees Earth from Saturn (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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Gills Club Shark Tales: An online and in-person sharkstravaganza 19-20 September at NEAQ!

Note:  This post has been updated on 18 September 2017.  

Friends, Researchers, Countrywomen, lend me your ears!

The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and New England Aquarium are hosting a completely free two-day event, 19-20 September, featuring an amazing line-up of shark scientists and enthusiasts, including:

Keynote Speakers:

Susan Goldberg – Editor in Chief of National Geographic Magazine

Wendy Benchley – Renowned global voice for shark protection and co-founder of the prestigious Peter Benchley Ocean Awards.

Gills Club Science Team Speakers:
Dr. Michelle Heupel – Australian Institute of Marine Science
Dr. Alison Kock – South African National Parks
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What makes high school girls love sharks but avoid science

A shortened – and less ribald – version of this post was published 24-07-2017 in the International Business Times.

Ah, the transition from middle school to high school… the one part of adolescence no one reminisces about fondly.  It’s the time in our lives where mental and physical changes happen at pace without any apparent continuity, and we feel compelled to blend in.  This is the same time when most young girls’ interest in STEM stops, and in my educator/zoologist opinion, these events are related.

What does our culture gear teenage girls to prioritize?  Making varsity teams, growing boobs to the correct size and at the correct time, and completing enough social jostling to earn the superhuman prom date.  Most of the STEM-geared young girls I have worked with couldn’t care less about the above – but the attitude of their peers changes by the end of 8th grade.

http://subtubitles.tumblr.com/post/30828711121

Students of both sexes in 6th grade will happily discuss how rainbows are made and share their mutual wonder if the natural world, but those conversations quickly become “immature” when the puberty plague takes hold.  It’s also in 8th grade when boys enter a race to the bottom of inappropriate jokes fueled by mutual insecurities.  Suddenly, STEM-interested pupils find that their friends are segregating, fashion forward girls to one side and crude boys to the other, leaving a handful who want to discuss the space/time continuum floundering somewhere in the middle.

Then, regardless of where you sit on the social divide, hormones kick in.  This critical time is when young people figure out how to create partnerships, what constitutes a good or bad relationship, and the physics of copulation.  In addition to this, obtaining a socially higher-ranking partner becomes an unconscious priority.  Guess what most young men think is unattractive in women?  Intelligence (unless you’re beautiful enough to compensate).  YOU READ THAT CORRECTLY.

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Measuring the Cultural Value of Oysters

Most people from oyster-producing regions like the Chesapeake can attest to the fact that oysters are important the the social fabric of the community. In many towns that date back to the colonial era, oyster shells literally line Main Street and form the foundation of the town. In others, they form the basis of a modern-day bar scene boasting of “merroir” of the oysters alongside terroir of the wine. When the ecosystem around these kinds of places changes (think warming waters, acidified waters, introduced species who also love oysters), the resource underpinning this aspect of culture and heritage can be threatened. What does that mean for the humans so connected to the briny bivalve?

Historic Baltimore Shucking House. Courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library

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Rumors of the lesser electric ray’s demise have been greatly exaggerated

A lesser electric ray. Photo credit: Brandi Noble, NOAA Fisheries Service

The lesser electric raya small sand-dwelling ray that lives from North Carolina to Brazil, has been considered one of the most endangered marine fish on Earth. A 2005 paper reported that 98% of these rays had been wiped out, a decline attributed to shrimp trawling bycatch. This paper resulted in these animals getting classified as IUCN Red List “Critically Endangered,” the highest risk category for any species that is still found in the wild.

A new paper published today in the journal Endangered Species Research shows that these rays are in much better shape than previously believed. “There is no evidence of a decline in the relative abundance of lesser electric rays,” said Dr. John Carlson, a NOAA Fisheries Service Research Biologist and lead author of the new paper.

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