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Juniata Chemistry Professor Makes Cutting-Edge Instruments at Cut-rate Prices

(Posted February 25, 2002)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- When most scientists look at an intricate scientific instrument, they see a tool for uncovering the secrets of the natural world. When Juniata College chemist Tom Fisher sees a scientific instrument, he sees a tool of discovery, but he also almost immediately sees a way to use his own tools to make the same instrument for less money.

Much less money.

Fisher, who joined the Juniata faculty in 1976, teaches the college's course in analytical chemistry -- essentially a semester of learning how to use the scientific instruments required in the world of 21st century chemistry. "When the organic chemists want to know what kind of compound or material they have, they put it into an instrument that I'm in charge of," he explains.

Although he started his career as a biochemist after earning a doctorate from Iowa State, Fisher always found himself drawn to how machines work. Even before college he always was fiddling with radios and other electronics. "I remember in 1948 my dad gave me a pith helmet that had a radio incorporated in it," he recalls. "It had a vacuum tube that sort of stuck up on the brim like a horn. It was the talk of the neighborhood."

These days Fisher wears many hats -- teacher, author, advisor -- and perhaps the role dearest to his heart -- inventor. Using materials found mostly at hardware stores and Radio Shack, he incorporates sophisticated electronics into machines that perform the same function as commercially sold scientific instruments.

Here's a look at a few of his inventions (Note: the prices reflected in both commercial instruments and Fisher's instruments do not include the cost of a personal computer to collate and analyze data.).

-- An anodic stripping voltammeter, which analyzes toxic metals in solution. The instrument most scientists use costs about $12,000. Fisher reconfigured the instrument using similar electronics, a few rotating parts and a metal mesh pencil holder from an office supply store. Total price: $150.

--A quartz crystal micro balance, which is an extremely sensitive scale that can measure weight on a cellular level. Juniata owns one commercial balance, which retail at about $10,000. Fisher made his version from computer-friendly electronic components and housed it in a videotape cassette case for just under $150.

--A spectrophotometer, which analyzes and identifies compounds using unique qualities that light waves emit as they pass through the compound. Juniata has three research-quality instruments retailing at $10,000. Fisher's version features an electrical box cover, the butterfly nut from a toggle bolt, a relatively sophisticated diffraction grating and several machine screws attached to sophisticated electronics. His cost: just over $200.

Fisher founded a company, Inexpensive Systems, to market his products but found that his inventive vision had no real market niche. "Most chemists who need material analyzed want instant results and can write a grant to buy whatever instrument they need," Fisher says. "On the other end, high school chemistry and science classes often have small budgets and can't afford to buy even a less expensive $150 version of an analytical instrument."

Nowadays Fisher creates some of his affordable instruments for use in Juniata College labs, so that science students can have the opportunity to use sophisticated analysis instruments without having to share the same instrument. He also occasionally makes specialized scientific instruments for his wife, Ruth Reed, also a Juniata College professor of chemistry. One of his more unique improvised instruments made for Reed used a Lazy Susan to create a test-tube collection device.

"I think I've spent about $70,000 over the years and taken in about $3,000 in sales, so this has turned out to be just an expensive hobby," he says with a laugh.

While Fisher usually can replicate the inner workings of an instrument, writing the software to make the knockoff takes considerably longer. He just finished writing the software for his voltammeter. He's been working on that since 1996.

Fisher publishes his work, as do most other chemists, but he doesn't go for academic journals such as the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the Journal of Biological Chemistry or the Journal of Chemical Education. No, he publishes his machine dreams in Electronic Design and another journal called Nuts and Bolts. "If you publish in an academic journal it takes months and the design may be obsolete by the time it comes out," Fisher says. "Some of my designs are of interest in developing countries so this is an easy method to get the word out."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.