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Archive for September, 2011

The Price of Rare Earth Neodymium Magnet Prices – A small bubble bursts?

At the beginning of this year China, which controls that vast majority of Neodymium production in the world, decided to centralize production. They put taxes on the product to pay for pollution controls (mining and refining can be a messy business) they also controlled exports in order to utilize the magnets for their own ends. This caused a quite a stir as prices skyrocketed and manufacturers of toys and other magnet using products found their materials costs rising rapidly. Many vendors informed us of price increases 2-3 times this year where in past years there may have been just one set of price changes. It also threatened the price of hybrid cars, which use at least a kilogram of Neodymium.

But a few months ago, we noted that the price of Neodymium leveled off. It hindsight it should have been fairly obvious – prices can’t increase 100% every month. We went on the assumption that the prices might drop a little bit but would likely remain high as domestic production of Neodymium ramped up and dropping prices might discourage such investments, and China had little reason to change its present policies.

China Prices Have Dropped But Still Remain High

However, there were other factors in Neodymium pricing at play. These factors have resulted in a bit of a price crash over the past month. While the price out of China remains high, it has come down quite a bit. But the Bloomberg Rare Earth Metals index has actually dropped below last year’s levels!


There are apparently several reasons for this crash. One is speculation – whenever a commodity rises fast in price there are inevitably economic speculators  who jump into a buying spree and hold the product hoping to get as much re-sale out of it. This can be quite profitable, but if you join at the wrong time you can get caught in a crash or bursting bubble of prices. It seems that this happened to a lot of speculators when the demand dropped.

And why did the demand drop? Well, high prices discouraged a lot of casual use of high-power magnets, but Toyota was working on a rare-earth free induction motor in response to China’s 2010 restrictions. Other car companies plan to use such motors in their hybrids as well.

Prices are still high compared to the incredibly low prices of 2008-2009 when Chinese


production was at a high point and prices at a low point – this is the era when rare earth magnets started to be used in toys! But at least the era of rapidly skyrocketing prices of rare earth magnets would seem to be over for now.


fischertechnik Mechanic & Static Engineer Set

fischertechnik (yes, with the lower case ‘f’) makes high quality school education physics & robotics construction kits  that can both entertain and teach students. The kits use a construction toy style (like LEGO or K’NEX)to build the projects. They produce many different kits, and we will be adding them to our product line. But for this post we thought we would concentrate on one particular bit of engineering education: The fischertechnik Mechanic & Static Engineering kit


This kit has over 500 components for building 30 different models. Included with the kit is a 134 page, full-color construction booklet to help you build the models. Since this is an engineering kit you start with simple designs like Bars & turntables, but soon you will be constructing things like a planetary gear:


Of course, this being an engineering kit about statics and mechanics you have to have a bridge model:


Or other concepts in mechanics such as a balance scale:


But soon you’ll be producing such exciting models that are based on practical, real-life concepts such as this mechanical mixer – not unlike the model you would see in a kitchen:


There are plenty of other models and the kit has lessons on Dynamics, Electric moors, worm gears, crank gears, mandril screws, and much more!

The Mechanic & Static Engineering kit is powered by a 9V battery (not included) and includes the motor, switch & battery tray.  This is an excellent kit for the classroom or for kids who love to build aged 9+!


Astronomy Hints #5: Viewing the Inner Planets

We’ve covered the easiest telescope target in a previous post on viewing the Moon and now it is time to start thinking about using your telescope to view other members of our solar system – the planets. We’ll start with actually can be a harder target in some ways: The inner planets, or at least the ones closer to us. This means Mercury, Venus, & Mars.

Most of the planets are bright enough that they are not affected by light pollution much. Viewing them is subject to other atmospheric conditions, however.

Mercury – Right off the bat we should let you know that Mercury is a very tough object to view. Being the closest planet to the sun means that most of the time it gets washed out by sunlight. However, every now and then Mercury reaches its furthest orbital distance from the the sun and sticks out far enough so that right after the sun sets Mercury can be seen.  This is the best time, in fact the only time to view Mercury (although it can also be viewed when the same orbital conditions happen during a sunrise). Don’t expect very much, Mercury will appear to be little more than a dot in your telescope.  Most astronomers usually hunt down Mercury just to say that they have done it rather than for any impressive views.

Venus –  Venus is also closer to the sun than the Earth, which means it will only be visible right before the sun rises or right after the sun sets. Hence Venus’ other names “Morning Star” and “Evening Star”.  Venus will usually be very bright and easy to find when it is up. When magnified in your telescope Venus will likely have a crescent shape visible much like the Moon but probably won’t have many surface features, at least without a filter. This is because of Venus’ heavy cloud cover. That same cloud cover makes it very reflective and bright but removes any surface detail.

Note than on some occasions, with a bit of experience you can actually view Venus in the middle of the day! This takes some practice to do, however.  It is one of the occasions where a computer-aided telescope can actually help quite a bit.

Mars – Mars is the first planet that is actually further from the Sun than Earth. It is reddish in appearance -even without a telescope. When it is up you can try to crank up the magnification. Most of the time Mars is a decent object to view, but about every 24-25 months Mars reaches opposition, where it is closest to Earth. This is best time to view Mars and with decent skies, a good telescope, and high magnification you might be able to get details such as the polar caps! As of this writing the next opposition will be in March of 2012.

A note about Mars – Every time Mars comes into opposition some folks send out emails with ludicrous claims about  how Mars appear as big as the Moon in the sky. These emails are recycled from the 2003 opposition which was the closest opposition in some 50,000 years. But even during that opposition Mars certainly did not appear as big as claimed. When you get these emails, please do not forward them.

Asteroids and Minor Planets – These can be tricky targets and often require a bit of detail and knowledge of the sky to find them. They also require a good quality telescope to locate. Get some experience working with the night sky before you start hunting asteroids.

A Note About Filters:The brighter planets are often bright enough

Color Filters

Colr Fitler Set

that you can consider using color filters that thread onto your telescope’s eyepiece. These filters can help bring out surface details that would otherwise not be viewable in normal conditions. A Red #25 filter, for example, can bring out cloud detail on Venus. Trying different filters can bring a new experience to your viewing of the planets.

In our next Astronomy Hints we will tackle the bigger denizens of our Solar System (well, most of them are bigger anyway)- The outer planets!


Fun with TWISST, or Getting Notification to see the ISS

A fun side-hobby in astronomy is to get quick glimpses of the largest man-made object in our orbit: The International Space Station.








The Space Station is a nifty, bright object from our view. It moves quickly from horizon to horizon and comes up fairly often. But knowing when it will show up is a bit of a problem, especially since its visits are over quite quickly. There are computer programs, Smartphone Apps, and other online aids to help you plan but not much that really helped let you know when it was coming if you weren’t specifically looking for it.

Well, here  to help with that is TWISST. If you have a twitter account TWISST will send a tweet  to everyone in your location when the ISS is going to make an appearance! TWISST uses  your entered location on Twitter and makes tweets appropriately!

ISS viewing is one of those hobbies that requires no special equipment, you can view many of the ISS passings with the naked eye! All you need is a twitter account and maybe a phone that can get tweets!


Agars, Buffers, and Broths

Nutrient Agarhas been a staple in both the classroom and the lab, it is used

Bacteria Experiment Kit

Bacteria Experiment Kit - Agar!

as a bacteria growing medium – happily feeding the source bacteria you swab through it from whatever experiment you’ve dreamed up. Be it the ‘is my dog’s mouth cleaner than mine, to testing the 5 second rule.  We’ve sold lots of gelled Agar over the years, in both bottle or kit.

But sometimes people prefer to mix their own agar rather than have it pre-gelled. Sometimes this is for storage reasons (dehydrated agar does last longer on the shelf). Also, people may have need for other kinds of Agar or lab mixes.

Specialty Agar

Specialty Agar

So we have added some new agars and will be adding more! We’ve added a 500g bottle of dehydrated Nutrient Agar, as well as bottles of Technical Agar (which has a much lower amount of ‘stuff’). We’ve also added MacCornkey Agar, which is used in identifying bacteria that can ferment lactose. The MacCormley Agar will be available dehydrated or as a prepared plate.

In addition to Agar, we are also adding D/E Neutralizing Broth, which is

D/E Neutralizing Broth

D/E Neutralizing Broth

used to determine the effectiveness of bactericidal properties of disinfectants, etc.  This comes in convenient tubes in packs of 100.  In addition we are now carrying bottles of Butterfield Phosphate Buffer, which is used as a dilutant in wastewater & food testing.

These new chemicals, being mostly biological or used in biological applications, are made on demand to maximize shelf life. As a result they cannot be rush ordered.

Spectrum Scientifics will be adding more of these items in the future. Keep an eye out!




New Kits from DK

DK Publishing produces colorful, informative, and fun books. But they also produce nifty kits that are one part book, and one part science kit. An example of this was their recently released Alien Robots Kit and The Science Kit.

We’ll start with the Alien Robot Kit:

Alien Robot Kit

Alient Robots Kit

This kit has 50 parts to make 6 unique robots! The parts include 2 high-speed motors, 2 battery holders, 1 axle, 1 propeller, 2 rivets, 4 foam disks and 25 card parts. With this parts you can make such robots as the Communatron, the FilterTron, The ScuttleBot, the DrillaBot, the Spinnatron, and the Defendatron which can seen in cartoony glory on the back cover:

While kids build the robots, they actually learn about physics, mechanics, motion, friction, gears, and more!

Also available from DK is The Science Kit!

The Science Kit

The Science Kit

The Science Kit with included book has enough materials to do over 100 science experiments! Creata a race car, build a helicopter, make a glider,  a lava lamp, and much more!

Both kits included the needed parts and have a 48 page booklet covering the science and experiments involved. Both kits are for ages 8+.



Benchmark Scientifics New Everlast 247 Laboratory Rocker

Benchmark Scientific has made a great name for itself by providing low-cost, high quality lab equipment. A good part of their line includes lab rockers that are used for staining, destaining, gentle mixing, or many other purposes.

But lab workers demanded something a bit more durable & long lasting. Sure the Benchmark rockers were tough, but scientists wanted them to be able to operate under cold room conditions, in incubators, or just be able to rock 24 hours, 7 days a week for years at a time. And by rock we don’t mean rock like your local radio station.

So Benchmark developed the Everlast Rocker 247, the Lab rocker that they are so confident of its durability that they back it with an unprecendented 5 Year limited warranty!

Benchmark Everlast Rocker 247

The BenchMark Everlast Rocker 247

The Everlast 247 rocker is designed for long endurance use – it can withstand cold room temperatures (down to 0 degrees  C) or incubators (max. 65 degrees C). It can run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with no problem. The heavy duty motor and system can handle it without a hitch.

The rocking speed can go from a gentle 3 rpm up to an aggressive 80 rpm for serious mixing. The tilt angle can be adjusted by the user from 0 to 20 degrees.

The platform is durable stainless steel to prevent rusting and corrosion, it can handle up to 16 lbs (7.5 kg).  In addition, an optional stacking platform can be added as well. A non-slip rubber mat is included for traction.

Everlast with Stacking Platform

Everlast Rocker 247 with stacking platform

The optional platform mounts with a 3.5″ clearance.

This durable lab rocker will give hard-working labs a tool that goes with their schedule demands.




Astronomy Hint #4 – Storing Your Telescope

So you’ve had a full night of observing with your new telescope and now its time to pack it in.  Its getting real late and you want to head to bed. So get the kids indoors and have them start brushing their teeth and just leave the telescope on the lawn…


This is one of those posts I shouldn’t have to make, but sadly this issue does come up: What do I do with the telescope when I am not using it?

Well, thankfully this is one of those areas in amateur astronomy where there really are some hard and fast rules. Let’s break it down into some do’s and do nots for starters. Let’s start with the Do Nots first.


Do not leave your telescope outside. Even if it doesn’t rain,  moisture from morning dew or fog can damage the optics – even if you put the dust caps on.  Even covering the telescope will not fully protect it (although some specialized telescope covers do come close).

Do not store you telescope in a place where it gets very hot. Attics and some garages can get quite warm. This heat can cause accelerate surface damage  to the First Surface Mirrors of a reflecting telescope, while heat can cause the optical glue in an Achromat lenses of a refracting telescope to weaken. Other telescope designs can also be damaged by excess heat.

Do not store telescopes where there is too much moisture – such as basements.  Again, the moisture can damage the optics

Do not use your telescope as a support for other items. In

Those sounds you hear are experienced amateur astronomers groaning at this sight

other words, do not

use it as a clothes rack. This can damage the mechanics of a telescope and the clothes being on it discourage the telescope from being used as much as it should. This should be obvious, but unfortunately in the astronomy community a telescope that doesn’t get used is often referred to as a ‘clothes rack’ in observance of people’s tendency to abuse telescopes that way.

Do not store the telescope in a way where its parts may be strained. A bent leg on a telescope is an expensive repair! A bent tube pretty much ruins the telescope. If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it.

Do neglect the accessories. They are very important to the telescope. Don’t do to them anything you shouldn’t do to your telescope.


Bring your telescope inside and store it in a cool, dry place.

Put all the dust caps and covers back in place. Don’t let any dust in while it is not being used.

Put all of your accessories, such as eyepieces, back into any containers they came in. This will keep dust and moisture off of them.

If you plan to not use your telescope for a while, consider covering it with something like a sheet to protect it from dust even better. Don’t let having that sheet over it discourage you from using the telescope, however.

If you have no room to store your telescope, consider dismantling it and storing it in its packing box.

When considering a new telescope, think carefully about where you will put it

A Dobsonian telescope has a much less intrusive footprint than a tripod telescope

when it is not in use! Consider the deign of the telescope when assembled and how much room it might take up! A fully extended tripod can take up a lot of floor space, while a Dob can take up just a handful of square footage.

Most of these things are just basic common sense. Sadly, as the saying goes ‘common sense isn’t very common’. We’ve seen many telescopes damaged or destroyed by improper storage. But we’ve also known telescope that when cared for can last a lifetime!


Stick Stones Get Colorful!

Stick stones have been popular at Spectrum Scientifics since we opened. The little hematite colored rocks are magnetized and are fun to get in bunches.

Stick Stones!

Until now, Stick Stones have been this color and nothing more. But now that has changed! Stick Stones are now available from Spectrum in both Gold and Peacock colors!

The gold is a nice golden coating that adds a level of class to the normal drab Stick Stone color:

Gold Stick Stones

Gold Stick Stones

Meanwhile the Peacock Titanium has a nice metallic multi-color that is quite attractive:

Peacock Titanium Stick Stones

Peacock Titanium Stick Stones

All of these stones are just $0.50 per stone and are on average about 3/4″ on their long side (the original stones are a little larger).  Be sure to get a few to little shape building projects and other fun ideas!

Coffee Powered Stirling Engine!

A new product has come onto the scene, and it can be powered by COFFEE (sort of)! The Low-Temperature Difference Stirling Engine can operate on just a hot cup of coffee or other hot liquid!

Go Little Stirling Engine, Go!

The Stirling Engine works by the expansion (or contraction) of air when heated or cooled. Heat expands the air in  piston that drives a shaft and spins a wheel (or some other action). A second piston is use to draw out the expanded hot air so the process can be repeated.  So far, so good, yes? But usually Stirling Engines require a fair amount of heat difference to operate, so that most of the time you need at least boiling water for them to operate. But in theory a Stirling Engine can operate with very minimal temperature differences between the source heat and room temperature.

Low-Temperature Stirling Engines have existed before, but usually were high priced! Now we present a model that costs under $100. Like any Low-Temperature Difference Stirling Engine it can operate not only on a hot cup of liquid, but also on ice!

Now we wouldn’t want to leave you with just some pictures, so here is a video of the Stirling Engine in action. All we used was a beaker of water that had been microwaved for 1-1/2 minutes!

Want to buy Stirling Engines