Element Collection

Element Collection

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Element Display: Introduction

For a very long time I have been interested in the hobby of element collecting. That is, collecting actual samples of elements from the Periodic Table. It's amazing to me that it is possible to possess all the building blocks for every piece of matter in the universe! This desire to start an element collection was actually what got me started as a home chemistry hobbyist in the first place. In fact, many of my experiments have the ultimate goal of isolating a pure element to add to my collection. While there are currently 118 elements discovered, it’s generally agreed that only the ones up to Uranium (92) are collectable (but it’s actually possible to get a few more than that, thanks to smoke detectors!). All elements heavier than Uranium, and a few lighter ones too, have no stable isotopes – they are radioactive and will eventually decay into lighter elements. That leaves a total of 95 samples to collect (including Am).

I've steadily grown my collection over the years, and now it's become large enough where I wanted to build a nice display case for it. This project has taken me many months to design and construct, and has evolved through a lot of different concepts and iterations. The idea quickly grew from a simple shelving unit to one that included programmable LED lighting, shelves arranged in the shape of the Periodic Table, and the ability to be broken down easily for transport. This was a massive undertaking, and even the simplest alteration required tons of work to propagate through the entire display. It has been an incredibly rewarding and very fun experience, and has taught me a lot of handy skills like painting, soldering, and carpentry in the process. I spent three months designing it, built three prototype small-scale versions, and spent another 13 or 14 months constructing it off and on during my free time. Below is a video of the finished product and a summary of how I put it all together. Much more detail can be found in the following posts here on my blog.

The general idea was to have individual acrylic shelves for each element, in the shape of the periodic table, back-lit by LEDs, and mounted on a backboard. Here are just a few of the materials I used. This picture is a bit outdated because I replaced some things as the project developed; for example the $5 cheapo power supply that tripped my GFI circuit breakers every time I plugged it in, was replaced with a much nicer laptop power supply.

I built it as large as possible for the space I wanted to put it in, a small “office nook” in my house. This size restriction was what governed the size of each element’s shelf in the final design. I also wanted to be able to take it places to show it off at events at the local science museum, for example. To that end, I designed the display to be able to break down into sections for easy transport. Finally, I built in the capability for the display’s LED lights to be programmable and controllable from a separate device. This allows for lots of really cool effects that appear in the current version, and opens up the possibility for even greater software control in the future.

Fun Facts:
-          Time spent designing: 3 months
-          Time spent building: ~1 year
-          Dimensions: 48” tall x 65” wide (about 4ft x 5.5ft)
-          Number of shelves: 120
-          Shelf Dimensions: 3” x 3” x ¼”

-          Number of holes drilled: 361
-          Power drawn at maximum illumination: 12.0 V @ ~3 A (2.4A for LEDs, plus extra for the controllers)
-          Total Cost: ~$1000 (not including the element samples themselves, or all the prototyping materials I went through)
-          Current Samples: 57 pure elements, 10 represented by radioactive decay products, and 2 representative compounds

-          No, I can’t build one for you, sorry. It would be quite a lot of money to rebuild and would take many months to complete. And that’s just for the display unit – filling it with elements is another matter entirely (and one which even I haven’t completed). That being said,  exceptionally generous offers will be considered!

This project can be divided into several pieces, which I will go into detail on in separate posts. These are the backboard, acrylic shelves, LED lighting, and the LEDs associated control circuitry. See these posts for more information!


  1. beautiful, just beautiful.

  2. I love the 3D element display idea! The whole thing is beautifully made! Would you mind making an article on the Magnesium explosion mixed with rust and aluminum that you did Thursday morning?

    1. Thank you! I'm very proud of it for sure. Search on my YouTube channel for "thermite" - I've posted several videos about those types of reactions. The thermite compilation video has lots of different compositions! The one I showed you guys was the common red iron oxide + aluminum version, but you'll see you can use just about any metal oxide powder instead!