If you’ve ever met me in person, you’ll know that I’m a chemistry buff. You’ll also know that I’m a hoarder collector who is always in search of something new to start. Well, here we go – I’m starting an element collection. Inspired by some of the interesting displays shown on YouTube channels like Periodic Videos, I figured I’d make my own!

The Display

Every great collection needs a display! In order to properly show off my collection, I’ll be creating a wall-mounted recreation of a periodic table. Every element will have it’s own shadow box to house a small sample of each element.

The Frame

To actively mount something onto the wall, you need a frame. The first thing that came to mind originally was to start with a sheet of plywood (not particle board) and mount something called “din rail” to it. For those of you not in the know, din rail is used in the industrial engineering world to mount electrical components (such as relays, power supplies, PLC’s and more) to a panel. The plan would be to make little boxes that could snap onto the din rail as needed. The low-profile nature of din rail means that the display boxes could sit close to flush to the plywood board  and not require any visible mounting holes.

While I love me some din rail, I decided not to go that way for a couple of reasons. First, I have to deal with 3d-printed brackets (more on that in a minute) which complicate the creation of the display boxes. The harder it is to manufacture this display, the less of a chance I am of ever finishing it. The second reason is due to size and weight – a 4×8 foot sheet of plywood is heavy and huge….should I ever decide to move the display or pack it away, I have to deal with that.

The second option I came up with was to use 2020 aluminum extrusion. While it’s relative chunky-ness wouldn’t give me as clean of a profile as the din rail, it is much easier to break down and store should I need to. It is also easy to assemble and building display boxes to sit on it is much easier; I don’t have to deal with a bracket, I just need to add a couple small holes to run screws through to the other side.

2020 aluminum extrusion isn’t horribly expensive (I found it for about $6/meter), it’s very light, and extremely strong. Given it’s aluminum as well, it should be fairly easy to cut with even a dull wood blade.

The Display Boxes (Shadow Boxes)

I’m still working on what I want the end displays to look like, but the general idea is that each one will be a square that displays the chemical symbol, atomic number, and atomic weight. I’m going to design the base of the box up in OpenSCAD so that I can use a script to generate 3d models to house all 118 elements (yeah, yeah, some I can’t have….keep reading). After generating the models, they’ll be 3D printed on one of my trillion printers at home out of PLA. Each box will be around 4 inches in each direction which gives plenty of room to store a 20ml sample vial or two and maybe a mineral for some.

I have a few ideas on things I want to add to increase the beauty and utility of the boxes. The first is to add a few small LED’s to the top of each box. This would serve to light the display and show off the elements. I may tweak this idea slightly to run addressable RGB LED’s through it so I could do things like create animations, show off properties of the elements, and more.  If I go this route, I’ll likely print everything out of white or light-grey PLA to show off the colors.

The second “tweak” would be to add small RF transmitters to the boxes that contain gasses. These transmitters would come out of eBay-flavored USB plasma balls which I can pick up for $5/piece. I’d likely have to do some RF shielding to keep local radio operators happy, but the end result would be the ability to see gases glow when they’d otherwise be seemingly empty vials.

The last thing I’d like to do is somehow add a protective window to the front of some of the displays. The idea here would be to prevent folks from gaining access to some of the more expensive elements or ones that are a bit more harmful. I’m not sure how I want to do this quite yet though. On one hand, I’d like to be able to take elements out to look at them (even if through glass or acrylic) from time to time. On the other, some of these elements shouldn’t be handled regularly. If I go with a “locking door” type of protection, I can open up the boxes without too much trouble, but then I have to deal with an unsightly hinge. The other option is to go with a screwed-on window – if I use fairly long screws, it would take someone a good 5-10 minutes to get the window off by hand at which point they’d get caught (assuming I’m home).

The Elements

It should be no great news that some elements are more dangerous that others. Some are very reactive. Some are very toxic. Some are radioactive. Some can literally eat through glass. There are even some that are next to impossible to contain in sealed container. It’s a mess.

So how do we manage this? I’m putting elements into few main categories:

magnesium strips

Magnesium Sample

Generally Safe and Stable

These are elements like nickel, zinc, iron, carbon, or magnesium. These elements are stable, won’t corrode much, and aren’t toxic. For the most part, these will be displayed in glass vials or out in the open for folks hold and handle.

Of Moderate Concern

These are elements like lithium, cadmium, osmium, lead, or mercury. These are elements/samples that can be dangerous if improperly handled (due to reactivity, toxicity, etc), but are generally safe. As long as you don’t directly ingest the sample, you should be fine.

As these types of elements shouldn’t be handled, they will at minimum be stored in glass vials with sealed caps. How I seal these yet, I’m not sure. It may be something as simple as some tamper-evident shrink wrap or it may be something fancier. Still debating this. The main goal, though, is to hint to folks that they shouldn’t open the container.

Things that are messy (stored in oil, or stain) or of value (like rhodium) will also fall into this category namely to protect the samples.

Dangerous (Reactive and/or Toxic)

These are elements like cesium, bromine, chlorine, arsenic, or phosphorus. When it is possible to obtain a sample, the sample size will be relatively small to reduce the impact of exposure and will be permanently sealed. At minimum, this is a sealed glass ampule. When possible, these samples will also be contained in a cube of acrylic to prevent accidental breakage of their containers. If I can’t buy the element sealed in acrylic, I’ll try to find a way to do it myself.

These will also be sealed into their display box is such a way that they cannot be removed by drunk people at parties.

Not Worth It

There are some elements that are not worth trying to get. This is either because they are overly reactive (like fluorine), radioactive, or simply illegal to obtain. In these cases, the goal will be to find a different way of displaying the element while reducing or removing the dangers.

One option is to find minerals or compounds that contain the element – for example, the mineral fluorite is a way to display fluorine safely. Unprocessed uranium ore (in small quantities) is another option. The key here is to either stabilize the element or reduce it’s concentration enough that you have a display piece without danger.

A second option is to find materials or goods that contain small amounts of the element in question. Radium, for example, can be displayed as watch hands from an old radium watch. Thorium might come from a piece of a thorium lantern mantel. Americium from a smoke detector. You get the picture.

When it comes to some radioactive elements, I am toying around with the idea of simply sticking a few crumbs of uranium ore in a vial. As the uranium decomposes, it will go change itself into daughter elements, many of which do the same. I will always have at least a few atoms of certain elements, but not really enough to see. While I like the idea of “having every natural element”, I’m not a huge fan of having a large amount of radioactive materials grouped together in one place, so I might not do this.

The last option is to 3D print models of the nucleus of certain atoms. They may not be much to look at, but….well….they are something to look at… There are some elements that do not exist in nature (such as Technetium) or are so dangerous I cannot ever get them (famously, Plutonium). Rather than ever try to get some of these, a 3D printed stand-in is likely the best way to go.