Science shows up in everyday consumer products

MicroStar Lab staff scientist Marcy Aaron checks a sample for microbial-growth using a stereo microscope Nov. 7 at the company's laboratory in Crystal Lake. MicroStar does testing for the growth of fungus and bacteria on commercial products such as fabrics for clothing and paints.
MicroStar Lab staff scientist Marcy Aaron checks a sample for microbial-growth using a stereo microscope Nov. 7 at the company's laboratory in Crystal Lake. MicroStar does testing for the growth of fungus and bacteria on commercial products such as fabrics for clothing and paints.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Some looked like gray fuzz balls up close, others like flowers.

They’re “actually quite artistic,” said Judy LaZonby, the owner of a Crystal Lake-based lab that conducts microbial and fungal testing.

She pulls up a photo of a microscope slide on her computer: “These little hairy things are the fungus. This is a gym sock, so you see the looped white material, and then all the little black spots are chaetomium growing on this stuff.

“Each one of those little balls has hundreds of spores inside of it. It’s a puff ball. It attaches, and then it grows big enough, and then it pops. When it pops, it opens sort of like a Pac-Man.”

Like many companies in McHenry County, the work that LaZonby’s MicroStar Lab does is behind many products that show up in everyday life, including wallboards, paint, drapes, ceiling tiles, countertops and gym bags. It also does military-grade testing.

Its rooms are filled with temperature- and humidity-controlled chambers where rows of fabric, drywall or other samples hang over a pan of moldy dirt. Everything is meticulously monitored, and LaZonby or one of her technicians will receive a text or email alert if anything veers off course.

The samples are checked once a week for four weeks, and if the controls don’t have mold growing on them by the end of the test, the whole process has to be repeated, an aspect that has kept the competition pretty limited, LaZonby said.

Some of the tests are for quality control, making sure that each batch of a product comes out the way it’s supposed to.

It also will identify fungus that has shown up in factories so that the company knows what antifungal agent to use to combat the problem.

“Every fungus can be identified by the way it produces spores,” LaZonby said. “They all do it a little bit differently.”

MicroStar Lab also tests new products and is involved in research and development, seeing how much of a chemical can be removed to cut down on costs while still using enough to keep the product antimicrobial or anti-fungal.

Scot Forge in Spring Grove also is involved in research and development for its clients, said Tony Biell, its director of quality assurance and metallurgy. It forges parts for Caterpillar tractors and dump trucks, for missiles and rockets, for submarines and even for the Mars Rover.

“Where does the science come into it?” Biell said. “Metallurgy is the science. We have to figure out how to forge the metals. That means what temperature do we heat it to, how do we control the temperatures, how much forging we do at certain times to get the right microstructure, and then how to heat treat it.”

They also can change up the composition of the metal. For example, changing the levels of carbon and manganese in steel.

Depending on the different variables Scot Forge uses, it can make metal soft or hard, change how much impact it can take and adjust its ductility, meaning how much it bends before it breaks.

A lot of experiments are conducted to reach the criteria set out by the client, and then ultrasonic waves are used to test for any defects, Biell said.

Metal is shaped two main ways, through casting at a foundry and forging.

Casting is good for taking advantage of economies of scale, but the metal tends not to be as strong because it’s porous and has an inconsistent grain structure, Biell said. Forging can take a cast and minimize or even eliminate those defects.

Before products make it to Scot Forge to be made or MicroStar Labs to be tested, a prototype might be built using 3-D printing at C.ideas, a Crystal Lake-based business run by president and CEO Mike Littrell.

“When someone was coming up with a new product, they would use 3-D printing basically to proofread their designs,” he said. “As the printers have become faster, the materials have become more exotic and the cost has come down, more industries are using.”

The market has saturated fairly quickly over the last decade, and while the process has changed little since it started, the areas it has delved into have been varied.

This process, which was developed about 30 years ago, has been used to make full skeletons and organs for medical training or to test run a reconstructive surgery custom-made hearing aids, movie props and scale models.

Scientists also will turn to 3-D printing to develop specialized tools to prove out theories they’re working on.

One of the most interesting projects Littrell worked on was in building a two-story iceberg for the Museum of Contemporary Art.

“This is the next big gold rush, but no one knows what the rush is for,” Littrell said.

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