Thing Creation: Element Collection Display

Over the past ten months I’ve been assembling a collection of all elements for which I’m able to obtain samples. The ones excluded from my collection are either deadly radioactive, impossible or illegal to obtain, or have such short half lives that any sample of them would be gone very soon, or some combination of those traits. I’ll be writing a separate article with details about the elements, how I got them, and how they are contained.

After collecting 88 elements, I needed a way to store and display them all together. I tried sketching up several different plans for a single large display box, but it was just too big and labor-intensive, so I scrapped those plans and started over. First, I needed to figure out how to create a grid of 20 by 10 compartments that could each hold a cube up to about 1.8 inches. My ingenious solution was to have interlocking acrylic dividers cut out on the CNC at work. For two 10 by 10 grids, I needed 36 dividers (nine in each direction for each grid). They took nearly an hour to cut, and turned out beautiful.

I built two square boxes out of thin veneered plywood and treated them with tung oil, and then worked out a somewhat complex process to assemble the acrylic grids and get them in the boxes.

element-box-1

At first I tried building the grid inside the box, but that wouldn’t work. I had no way to hold up nine separate pieces while installing the first cross piece, and I couldn’t put them in with the cross piece already there. So I started outside the box with one horizontal piece and one vertical, and built it up by sliding the rest of the vertical pieces in and rotating them into place so the others wouldn’t fall out in the process.

element-box-3

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Once I got all the vertical pieces in, I could add the horizontal ones. For the first few, each vertical piece had to be adjusted to line up the slots, but then they were aligned well enough I could just wiggle the horizontal piece from side to side and it would fall into place.

element-box-5

element-box-6

I couldn’t pick up the grid and put it in the box because it would twist out of shape and pieces would fall out. So I placed the box over it upside-down, reached under with my large hands spread out to hold all the acrylic in place, and quickly flipped it over. Success! Then I repeated the process for the second box.

element-box-7

This was a very exciting moment, so of course I had to get out my elements and arrange them all in their proper places. All except americium, which I accidentally put one space to the left.

element-box-8

The next step was to make liners to hold all the elements securely in place. Some of them are metal cubes, which I don’t want knocking around and scratching or breaking the acrylic. I also want this to be a nice display with everything lined up, and the samples need to be held securely in place for transport. The solution was a foamy modeling clay made by Crayola called Model Magic. I remember playing with something like it on a vacation when I was young, and was happy to see they still make it.

I needed a bunch of packing foam and almost four pounds of Model Magic to make liners for all the elements except the three in large acrylic boxes, and I was very happy with the result. You may notice some changes; this step was spread out over a few months and during that time I found better samples for a few of the elements, and the chlorine and iodine were slowly escaping.

To fill the gaps left by the lanthanides and actinides, I made two wooden blocks with burnt lettering.

With the display done for now, I added thin hardwood trim around the inner edge of the boxes to hold the acrylic dividers firmly in place.

The next step was to build the protective case for transporting and displaying the collection. I thought about the design for a while, imagining various complex solutions with special features, but ultimately decided to keep it simple. So one day after work I grabbed some scrap plywood from the bin and built two halves of a crate in about an hour.

Over the following couple days I finished preparing the case for transport and display, with seven sturdy hinges, four latches, a couple handles, more plywood, and egg crate foam.

The very next morning after finishing the case I set it up at the March for Science in White Salmon, WA, where we had a small science fair. Turnout was a couple hundred people, and everybody loved my periodic table of actual elements. One of the best parts of the day was when some second-grade students and their teacher came by, and told me they have the same book of elements at their school and one of them brought a presentation on bismuth (element 83). This is a fun display to show off because people can ask about specific elements; I don’t have to say the same things over and over because everybody’s eye is caught by different ones, and I have 88 of them so I can go on a long time without talking about the same element twice. Also, they’re sort of relevant to everything in the universe.

One of the many things I love about creative projects, especially long-term ones, is how they evolve and grow along with you. I feel as if I’ve brought the universe to life in a small way, because this project represents everything that’s made of matter, and it’s always changing. The watch represents promethium with its long-dead glowing paint, and if any of the element remains it is no more than a handful of atoms. The halogens are eager to escape and react with everything, and along with other reactive elements may need to be replaced. In around 400 years, half of the americium sample will be neptunium. Some of the samples will be upgraded simply because I find a new one that’s more interesting.

And I’m nowhere near done with the case. I have a bunch of carbon fiber which is no longer good for molding, but I may be able to cover the plywood with it. I also plan to build some storage compartments around the edges for various items, and make placeholders for the missing elements to fill out the entire periodic table.

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