Ecology, Earth System Science & Global Change Biology
How can 3D printing help ecologists understand climate change?
“The real uncertain part is species diversity,” says Adam Wolf, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University who studies how different kinds of plants respond to changes in water availability.
From Modeler to Maker
Wolf once relied on mathematical models that predict how plants grow, but these models are mostly “agnostic to species,” says Wolf. “So I became someone who builds tools.”
Taking Nature’s Pulse
Wolf is a co-founder of the Princeton University Low-Cost Sensors for the Environment (PULSE) Lab, which bundles sensors collecting climate data with a cell phone transceiver so the data can be sent on a schedule as a text message to a PULSE server.
3D Printing the Pods
“The original plan was to make everything out of extruded aluminum,” says Wolf, who prototyped the PULSE pods on a MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer. But he had a hard time getting the attention of metal fabricators — “even a run that would cost us a couple of thousand dollars is chump change for them,” he said — so the PULSE Lab ended up 3D printing its own pods out of PLA filament. The cost of the plastic filament is the same as aluminum, Wolf says: about $5 per pod.
Into the Wild
The pods have been deployed in the Pine Barrens, in southern New Jersey, and in Burkina Faso and Zambia. “Next we’re going to try in a tropical context,” says Wolf. And with a global network of simple wireless sensors and the know-how to analyze the data, the PULSE Lab attracted attention from other academics and from the private sector. “There’s a lot of money in monitoring agriculture production,” says Wolf, who imagines a system like traffic monitoring on Google Maps, only for the natural world.
Teaching Students to Be Makers
Wolf teaches a class in 3D printing with Kelly Caylor, a civil engineering professor. “I’m near the mechanical engineering department,” Wolf says. “They’ve got a $50,000 3D printer, you give the design to this other guy and they’ll make it. With the MakerBot, there’s an immediacy: ‘You mean I can make a design and press go?’ I’d love the students to go into milling and lathing, but the 3D printer — this 3D printer in particular — is the easiest way to get them making.”
(Photo by Ben Siegfried)