It might have been the passing of the typhoon to the south west. It might have been my imagination. But honestly, it feels like someone flicked a giant switch and turned off Summer and turned on Fall. The threshold for discomfort and misery outside lately has been whether or not the thermometers read above 30°C. And suddenly, we’ve plunged right through that threshold and into the 28-27°C range.  Additionally, it feels like the giant knob in the sky for humidity has been dialed down a bit. I greatly welcome the change! Now I can start to bring out the camera without fear of destroying the optical elements by mold. Now I can sleep at night without continuously running the air conditioning. Soon I can start to wear pants. And now, as a consequence that summer is over, I can finally hear myself think when walking under some of the local flora (all those pesky cicada – or whatever they are – are dead for the season). Granted, summer has it’s good moments: festivals, grilled food, fireworks, and the ever present excuse to pull out a cold bottle of nihonshu. However, I prefer it when my t-shirts don’t soak through with sweat in the morning when riding the bike to campus.

So, with the coming of Fall, so comes the beginning of another academic semester. And coincidentally, the research is looking to become all-consuming of my time… and I like it that way. Yee-haw.

My other area of “research” (as we’ll call it) has been Japanese premium nihonshu (sake). I want to try and fold that exploratory research into this blog as best as I can. And as part of that, I can certainly upload some of the great photos I snag as part of the process. So, without further ado, here is the introductory post on such passioned musings of nihonshu!

Tamagawa is a great brewery. Why is this so? They’ve got the only foreign national as their head brewer (also known as a Toji), Philip Harper. I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy his well crafted brews from time to time. However, recently, I came across a liquor store that sells a fairly comprehensive set of their products. The brewery is still in Kyoto Prefecture, but all the way on the northern coast of Japan – somewhat off the beaten path for sure. Now, the store didn’t have everything, but I did manage to grab three different bottles. One of which is the photo below: Time Machine 88.

This is fairly unique sake. The story goes, the staff of the brewery found an old recipe tucked away somewhere in the facility that was purportedly from over 300 years ago. The brewers reproduced the sake to the instructions and came up with this very deeply colored and sweet tasting brew. The “88” represents the milling ratio (I think). So, only 12 percent of the rice is milled away and the remaining 88 percent is brewed with. This unusually high seimaibuai (milling ratio) is mostly why the flavors and colors are so wild with this brew. Usually, sake is much clearer, occasionally with a tinge of yellowing – but certainly not this dark.

To add to the experience of this bottle being so old in heart, I opened up the bottle yesterday: “Respect for the Aged” day.

The bottles only come in the 300 ml size variety. And sadly, the label on this one is printed on the glass and not a traditional paper label. So, I can’t add this one to the growing art collection on my wall. I should also mention that there is another version of this type of sake. The brewery produces in extremely limited volume the same sake, but then they age it for another 3 years (I am not sure what type of container – stainless steel, ceramic, cedar, or something else). They only sell this bottle at the brewery itself or by order from the website – it’s not distributed. So, I’ll just have to visit the brewery itself if I want to try it!

Despite the relatively bad news of update #2, update #3 is pretty good. A couple of weeks ago my advising professor and I travelled to meet with a private company who was willing to hear us out and my research interests. After a conversation almost entirely in Japanese (practically none of which I spoke), we got the smiles and head nods of agreement and approval. So, to make it short, it looks like the company is willing to allow us to use their equipment in so far as preparing samples for test. The arrangement will not be quite as hands on as I would have liked – our previous partnership with the public research institute was a workshop environment with much more assistance. This feels much more business-y, but that’s what I would have expected.

Another really good piece of news regarding this new partnership is the equipment to be used. TRI (Osaka Prefectural Technology Research Institute) had a modified EOS M250 Xtended with a jury-rigged way to pipe in nitrogen or argon gas. It didn’t quite make the laser build chamber as pure and devoid of oxygen as I would have liked, but it would probably get the job done. The new private company has access to much fancier machines. Specifically, we’ll be working on a Laser Concepts M2. This (very expensive) piece of equipment has a built-in nitrogen generator with a build chamber and powder reservoir that is also sealed. So, we can get the oxygen atmosphere content of down pretty low – something critical for sintering titanium or most alloy steels. Obviously, as a business, they are quite busy with their equipment. However, they do have two facilities with one machine not in use as much. I’ll be free to load that machine up with work. Additionally, they have a Filipino on staff that can speak English. So, that’s another good bit of news.

Lastly, and this is probably almost as important as the first paragraph, the professor asked me to present at the conference we are hosting next year. Since I am his only PhD student, I believe he wanted someone from within his own lab to make any presentation. And to top it off, the professors seem genuinely interested in my topic of research. The only catch is, I still don’t have any data. It’s taken this long to secure equipment, so I am playing a bit of catch up. The papers for the conference will be due by March. So, that leaves me with roughly 6 months to get a 4 page paper put together. The presentation won’t be until November of next year, so that’s work and preparation I can kick down the road. But coming up with the bulk of the work before then, namely the engineering research itself, will be a challenge. On top of all the hard work that will be required just to make the samples, we’ll have to get the tensile split Hopkinson pressure bar operation again. So, I will be busy the next few months for sure. I will try to update as frequently as I can. When I have more progress (and feel confident about results) I will post more specifics. Until then, I will be a little vague.

That’s it for now. Keep reading (if anyone still does).

Today we had a bit of unexpected bad news from the professor regarding the research prospects. To make a long story short, the laser sintering machine I was to be training on and ultimately using for the research has gone down for repairs. The researchers at the Osaka Prefectural Technology Research Institute informed us that the laser is only operating at 60% of the maximum power it should be capable of. That just isn’t going to work for most stainless steels and other alloyed metals with higher melting points.

A bit of background…

The company that makes these particular machines, EOS (located in Munich, Germany), has developed special powdered materials for use in these machines. They provide very easy to follow laser sintering parameters that make it fairly straightforward to produce prototypes and injection mold dies. However, these powders are not suitable for hardware to be used in service for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here. However, the reason they are so easy to work with is because they rely predominately on selective laser melting to form bulk solids out of the constituent powder. One of the alloying elements in these from-the-supplier-materials is copper. Copper has a relatively low melting point. So, with a relatively lower power level on the sintering laser, it can selectively melt the copper powder particles to then act as a binder for the other, stronger elements. This is all well and good, but if you want to full-melt pre-alloyed powdered metals (such as 304L or 316L), you need much more power to elevate the temperature of the powder high enough to achieve a melt pool that will both bond to the previously sintered material and fully consume the powdered material not directly  heated by the scanning laser. The trick is to have a laser power sufficiently high enough that it melts the powder and not vaporize it! Some researchers have recorded (and intentionally fabricated) plasma from powdered metals in the build chamber. This isn’t exactly the intent of this fabrication process, but something to investigate nonetheless.

So, back to my woes…

The good news is that we may have an alternate player who may let me train and use their equipment in the meantime. The only catch is that they are a private and not a public entity. So, I am not sure what conditions will be levied on me being at the controls of their equipment (or if we can use it all).

Other than this, I can say that the weather should start to look more favorable in the coming weeks. I am definitely happy about this.

Finally the research effort has found some traction. I am super excited to have something I can pour my efforts into and see it move forward. I hope I can post somewhat infrequently with some updates as to the state of my academic work, pitfalls, and victories. I’ll try to make these updates sequential so I can look back on these in somewhat of a chronological order.

Update numero uno.

A little backstory… I spent probably a couple of months going round and round trying to find a research topic that was (1) realistic with the facilities and resource available at Osaka University, (2) of interest to me, and (3) had the opportunity to be “new” enough for me to do meaningful work that would be publishable. After several long months, I think my advising professor and I have found that sweet spot of research topics. Much to my delight (and after a little bit of suggestion and pressure on my faculty), I’ll be investigating the material science and manufacturing engineering of a small niche of additive manufacturing. Now, for most of you those words are pretty meaningless. However, a more popular name for this is known as 3D printing or rapid prototyping. The differences between those two and what I will be working on is the working material and end product goal. Let me give you a brief rundown of the state of the technology.

For about the past two decades making things with a laser out of a powdered material, layer-by-layer, has been around. The technology has matured to the point where making stuff out of polymers has gone fairly mainstream. Hobbyists can now build their own 3D printer at home and make small parts or objects using their home-built devices after acquiring their raw powder (something fairly easy to do with polymers (plastics)). For the past decade or so, companies could make prototypes or injection molds for other plastic or low melting temperature metal alloys. This is all well and good, but the real goal is to make the real deal, end-use parts from this process. And this is where academic and industry research steps in.

Specifically, I will be working with some stainless steels trying to isolate the operational parameters of a particular laser sintering machine to get relatively good powder consolidation (a mighty goal indeed). After we hit that milestone, we’ll work on quantifying the mechanical properties of the as-sintered metals along with a bevy of different configurations to help quantify and qualify the manufacturing process. One of the neat experiments we can run is high strain rate tensile and compression tests. This type of testing has not really been done on bulk materials manufactured this way. There are a whole host of other exciting things I will be looking at that I don’t really want to disclose until we have some preliminary data and documentation to support it. So, come back later!

So, what’s this particular update all about? At the moment I am writing my research plan to help organize my time and experimental method to the finest detail. I will be using some equipment at another research institute (that’s an unfriendly 1.5 hours away), so my time is valuable and must be properly planned before arriving. Also, at the moment, we’re working with our material supplier to get a powdered form of a particular alloy in just the right configuration to be used with the laser sintering machine. So, there is a bit of waiting involved at the moment.

I’ll do my best to keep you posted (with pictures too!) as work gets underway. The more I write about my research and document it, the easier my thesis will be easier to write! So, I have my own self-serving interest here to keep updating the blog.

Until next time, keep learning!

For your reading pleasure, here are a couple of wiki articles on the general technology I will be working on improving:

Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing)

Selective Laser Sintering

The vice of summer is slowly starting to tighten. Over the past month I have watched as the temperatures listed on the weekly forecast steadily climbed. The humidity fell upon the western-half of Japan like a thick curtain. I feel as though I am walking around with an added weight on my shoulders – always under the burden of the inescapable moisture, rain, and heat. Just the effort of walking or riding the bicycle to lab requires another shower. Sadly, that’s just not possible.

As I write this on my phone, I am finally sitting inside the bus from Toyonaka Campus to Suita Campus. Inside here, despite the unreasonable density of human bodies, the mild air conditioning is a relief. The only other place of refuge is the laboratory. There I can find a twenty-four hour supply of cool air if I need it.

As part of my constant struggles with coping in this climate, I have adopted a choice in clothing fabrics contrary to my historical preference for cotton. Here, synthetics and, surprisingly, merino wool are king. Moisture wiking and temperature regulation are more important that texture and fabric-feel. Lately, my wardrobe looks like I am more prepared to go to the beach or hiking than to sit in a lab. Nonetheless, comfort is critical when it comes to patiently reading academic papers or planning for the research effort.

What is most frightening about all of this is knowing that it’s only going to get worse. August is supposed to be nearly unbearable. What is “unbearable” you ask? Try temperatures in the mid nineties with humidity in the mid eighty percentile. Blegh. No fun indeed.

What is nice, however, is that Japan has a variety of methods to deal with the heat. Some of these methods are technological, others are more cultural. Of these techniques, my favorite is the seasonal change in some food offerings. Cold foods tend to dominate the menu in the cafeteria during the summer months. These include my all-time favorite, zaru-soba, ice cold japanese buckwheat noodles with an equally cool dipping sauce – delicious and healthy!

I’ll admit, I love the fall and winter more than I do spring and summer, but Japan does a lot of fun things with each season. That culture is exciting to be a part of and experience first hand.

In an effort to be more productive, I will de dedicating a specific time every week to nothing but writing for this blog (and a couple others I have neglected). Right now is not that special time, I just wanted to stretch the legs (or fingers) out a bit and get used to the tools I will be using to make all this happen. I’ll probably write about those too in a future post.

I desperately need to keep practicing my English. These writing exercises will help with that. It’s falling apart as I try to learn Japanese.

Now, time for bed.

How do I write a post that is more than some existential journey into some soul-wrenching exposition on life in a foreign country, apart from friends and family, and confused about what the future may bring?

Hell if I know.

With that, please accept this post as a simple gesture at trying something a little different. Please enjoy the following haikus.

Japan is all new
Life is ever changing now
Future is yet lived

Sake fills my cup
Sake overflows my cup
I will slurp spilled sake

Summer heat is here
Summer humidity sucks
Shut up noisy bugs

The last train has left
I am standing at the gate
It is a long walk

Rather than try to be routinely existential with blog posts, I’ll use the blog as a way to write more than a twitter post but less than a novel. Some of you out there still read this, so it’ll be a good way to keep up on how much Japan is changing me (and to a lesser extent, how much I am changing Japan). The previous post (below this one) is an example of the quick update. It’ll be easier to write and less of a commitment on my part – I’ll be more inclined to actually write something with a little more regularity than before.

It’s late – about seventeen minutes to midnight. From outside the open door to my balcony I can hear the rumble of the local train as it speeds on its way to downtown Osaka. Just yesterday we had another storm cell roll through and shake us a bit with some lightning and thunder. The summer insects are beginning to wake with their constant hum during the day and night. Every midday seems just a little warmer and more humid than the one before it. I am routinely reminded I am no longer in Los Angeles; more so by the plethora of signage that I still cannot read and understand. I’ll be missing a wedding next week between two very good friends of mine. Ironically, I will be making a presentation to my laboratory group at the exact same time as their ceremony. Life goes on and it is good.

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    "Grab onto life with both hands and don't let go" - Me