Tag Archives: FYP

Renewable Oil Conversion Machine | Semester Project Documentation

The Renewable Oil Conversion Machine is a speculative invention that harvests and converts human facial oil into biodiesel. It seeks to resolve future energy crises and shortages by producing alternative, renewable sources of energy. With energy consumption at a historical high, the time has come to explore untapped resources such as mankind’s infinite supply of sebum and facial oil.

The System

Renewable Oil Conversion Machine, 2017. Image credit: The Forge

This pseudoscientific system is plays on illusion and movement. It is essentially a chain reaction which mimics the chemical process of converting oils to biodiesel. I love how the machine goes through a very elaborate process just to secrete one teeny tiny drop of oil. It is highly-laborious and a poor use of resources, making it even more ludicrous!

The aesthetics and mechanisms were inspired by antiquity, steampunk and industrial machines. As much as possible, I wanted the machine to give off a fantastical, mad-scientist-wacky-invention vibe.

The interactive machine invites users to freshen up by wiping their faces with the provided oil blotters. A pressure sensor below the tray detects that an oil blotter has been taken, triggering the mouth of the machine to open automatically. This prompts users to place the used blotter into the custom-sized tray for processing.

Next, users push the lever, retracting the sliding tray back into the machine for processing. The blotters are made of highly absorbent bibulous paper. They turn transparent when it comes into contact with oil. Utilising this characteristic of oil blotters, the machine is able to detect the amount of oil on each blotting sheet using a light sensor and LED. The slider is made out of clear acrylic so the LED at the bottom can illuminate the blotter. The light sensor above detects how much light passes through (higher transparency = more oil detected).

This value is then reflected in an ‘oil detected’ meter on the front of the machine. The oil detected meter was a later addition and not in the initial plan. The light sensing was intended to discern between lightly-used and fully covered blotters, which would then affect the number of oil drops dispensed at the end. However, since I was already getting data, it could also be channeled into the meter as feedback to guide users through the machine.

Oil detection meter in microlitres

Taking a blotter and pushing the lever were programmed as mutually exclusive actions (i.e. the slider tray won’t open unless it is closed, vice versa). This is to filter out unexpected user behaviour such as taking blotters twice.

After getting a preliminary reading of their oil level, users are invited to follow the conversion process. This is done through:

  • A faux hydraulic press to squeeze oil out of the blotter
  • A furnace to heat and distill the oil
  • Mixer to shake and emulsify
  • Dropper which dispenses the converted biodiesel

Process  +  Construction

The machine is designed as separate modules to make adjustments and alterations easier. The external housings can also be removed.

Slider + Trap door + Bell

The slider was the most complicated module as there was a lot going on in a small space. This included 3 motors, sensors, lights, the slider mechanism, trap door mechanism to dispose of used blotters, a bin to collect used blotters, oil detection meter and bell.

There were hiccups along the way which I only discovered through making a smaller prototype. For example, due to static, the oil blotters would stick to the acrylic tray and not fall as intended. They wouldn’t slide down with gravity even if the tray was tilted steeply!

Tried drilling holes in the tray to reduce static

In the name of tinkering and experimentation, I sacrificed my desk USB fan to test whether blowing the blotter off was a possible solution to the static. It worked but only at certain angles and was not very repeatable.

In the end, I decided on a trap door mechanism to dispose of the used blotters. The speed at which the trap door opens pushes the used blotter down with enough force to overcome the static.

Baby and adult slider

In the process of building, the machine increased in size and complexity. Bringing the modules together, I could see what was lacking in terms of feedback and affordances. For example, the bell was a later addition to the system. It provides audio feedback about the completion of the ‘heating’ and ’emulsification’ process. Without the sound as signal, it would be harder for users to follow the machine’s process.

However, this made the slider module even more complicated as the support dimensions did not take into account a bell and another motor. Due to the lack of space, I decided to double up the function of the trap door to make it ring the bell. This proved to be very challenging as the small motors I used initially, while compact, were too weak. After a few runs, it could not repeat the motion consistently and even weakened the support structure by jamming it unintentionally.

Tiny motor which used to control trap door mechanism

I was tempted to switch the analogue bell out for a digital recording of the bell sound. However, after a lot more tinkering, I replaced the small motor with a stronger one and found the ideal limits for ringing the bell and controlling the trap door. This allowed the motion to be repeatable yay!


In line with the wacky-invention/mechanical vibe, instead of a button, I wanted users to push a lever to trigger the process. This interaction felt more fantastical and almost cartoon-like.

Building the lever

Sanding down the edges for a smooth hand feel!
Shortened the lever as the torque was too weak with such a long length

Hydraulic Press

While metal is strong, it is very hard to work with… sparks flying!

Pretty biscuit tin

Making a plastic ring to reduce metal friction
Used a cheap handheld balloon pump as the hydraulic press shaft

Fitting the tin into the base
Cutting the tin to length
Calibrating the 2 arm pivot positions to get the smoothest linear motion
Making a plastic ring to guide the shaft within the tin

Cutting a hole in the can to fit the thermometer snugly

The motor is attached to a metal coil which is attached to the meter needle.


The mixer followed the same design as the preliminary prototype. I added a wooden skirting around to conceal the motor and guides. With a couple of marbles in a tomato can, the mixer module uses simple harmonic motion to generate the flowing and oscillating noise.

Scavenging for materials

Bottle base made out of spare wood and a tin box cover

Calibrating the pressure and position of the jar to drop in the centre

The base on which the jar is placed is designed to fit an LED bulb. Once the mixer is done with the emulsification, the bell will ring and the LED will light up simultaneously to direct the viewers to the final step of the process. Behold, a drop of clean, green biodiesel is dispensed!

Pipes and Fittings

I used siphons, hand pumps, nylon fittings and flexible plastic conduits to mimic brass pipes used in industrial machines. They were easy to paint and flexible, without adding unnecessary weight to the machine. These elements made the machine more realistic and contributed to the wacky invention aesthetic. They also helped soften the cuboid form.

The magic of spray paint!
Spray paint saves the day

Moving Forward

Based on the feedback received, it would be great if I could include more lights, movement or even olfactory feedback to guide the viewer throughout the process. I would also like to add variation in the number of drops depending on the amount of oil each person contributes for harvesting. Such details would enhance the illusion and further blur the line between reality and the ridiculous!

Manmade Renewable Energy Converter | Semester Project Pitch

Inspiration  +  concept

Clean and Clear Oil Control Film marketing campaign by DDB Singapore
Biore Oil Control Films

Growing up, I used to have really oily skin — a common problem in hot and humid Singapore. People with oily skin will be familiar with facial oil blotting papers to remove excess oil and sebum. Simply pull one out and gently wipe your face. The blotting paper would turn darker when it comes into contact with facial oil.

Effect of facial oil on oil blotters. Image credit: Buzzfeed Videos. Video Still.

These convenient and travel-sized sheets are one of the great pleasures after a long day at work or school. Not only does your face feel refreshed, much of its appeal lies in the satisfaction of seeing the oil that was removed from your face.

I frequently used oil blotters and would be amazed on days when I filled up an entire blotting sheet! I often joked with friends that my face alone could put an end to global warming and solve the then energy crisis.

This thought serves as the inspiration for my project — I want to make a speculative device that harvests facial oil from oil blotters to convert into biofuel. This pseudoscientific machine will present a renewable, manmade source of energy which could potentially solve future energy crises.

This speculative scientific instrument is in line with my FYP and will be part of the kunstkammer.  As part of my FYP, I’ve been tossing around ideas to make a ‘conversion / transformation’ machine (e.g. changing water into wine). I think this is a nice balance and also actualizes an old idea. It also subverts and combines the fleeting and frivolous beauty industry with the more serious and consequential research and development industry.

Design  +  Harvesting Process

The device will provide blotting papers for users and invite them to contribute their sebum oil. They will insert the used blotters into the machine and watch the ‘harvesting process’. This will result in the machine dispensing a drop of ‘biofuel’ at the end of the chain (varies depending on the amount of facial oil).

The harvesting process will be loosely based on the process of making biodiesel from waste vegetable oil.

Harvesting Process
Layout of the machine

Borderline believable  ( but still pretty useless )

Although ludicrous and likely a poor use of resources in real life, the concept of converting human oil to biodiesel is not that far off. With the proper setup, biodiesel can be made at home with many different base oils.

Image credit: http://www.utahbiodieselsupply.com/

The machine is completely artificial and does not actually pass oil through the pipeline. Instead it shows snippets of the reaction process and relies on the user’s imagination to bridge the gaps. This is similar to how horror movies are more effective when a gruesome action is suggested off-screen, and heightened by the user’s imagination.

Instead of constructing a useful realistic device, the appeal of this speculative machine will lie in the ludicrous concept, tedious yet low-yield process, as well as the chain effect and motion it generates.

I plan to control the machine using max, phidgets, iCube sensors and Arduino.

Let’s solve global warming one wipe at a time.  Not really.


References for making biodiesel:

Emporium | FYP Proposal Update | week 12

This week, I’m having some doubts about the feasibility of a Rube Goldberg machine as the focal point of the work, but more on that below. I also thought of some possible objects and devices to include in the installation. I’m starting to see some common strands but overall the installation will present an eclectic mix of curios within a surreal space. Perhaps it’s becoming a compilation of things I like and am fascinated by. However, I guess there’s nothing wrong with that either.

List of (possible) items to display

1. Interactive devices

A past prototype of a machine that offers tissues when you sneeze

This will be the most varied part of the project. These devices may be digital, analog, inventions, re-imagining of existing products etc.

Some possible rules, themes and constraints I could start from (evolving list):

– Reimagine common household items e.g. cups, saucers, clock
– A device that is made within a time limit e.g. 6 (wo)man-hours
– A device that solves a common problem
– A device that hurts
– A device that heals
–  ………..

2. Private slide show cameras

Mini slideshow camera toy

Sometimes referred to as ‘view-masters’, these toy cameras usually come with a rotation of several pictures illustrating a children’s story. There are many types; full-size, tiny, single view, stereoscopic etc.

View-master with dinosaur pictures

I like how we use these simple toys in open spaces (in a shop, among others) but we alone watch the story unfold. Instead of the typical ‘3 little pigs’ or ‘elephant goes to the market’ images, these unassuming toy cameras will present alternative images and narratives which may be somewhat private or unsightly. They may show images of war, current affairs, childhood scenes, nudes, my ongoing semi-serious photo series of people who take insta photos in museums etc.

Perhaps I could use these as a form of documentation as well, showing my FYP process of conception and construction.

3. Sketches, blueprints, instructional diagrams (2D)

Blueprint of an airplane

As part of process and idea documentation, as well as decoration to build up the workshop atmosphere. These paper works and images will be high curated and mounted onto the walls or scrapbooked.

4. Secret stereograms

I could create stereograms and mount them on the Emporium wall at eye-level without explicit instructions. At first glance they will appear to be just print patterns or postcards. The 2 guiding dots on top of the image will help visitors ‘see’ and also serve to hint that they are stereograms.

5. Tiny boxes / environments that we peep into…

6. Something with living creatures…

Concerns regarding the Rube Goldberg Machine & other options?

Repeatability and automation

The strength of a Rube Goldberg Machines (RGM) arguably lies in how innovative the triggers and connections are. Creators often employ materials such as weights, liquids, fire that need to be repositioned and replaced after each run. This reset process usually takes a long time and is done by teams of people during competitions. As the installation will be up for an extended duration, the RGM must be able to reset simply, and preferably, automatically after each step of the sequence.

An alternative would be to record it beforehand and present the video with the stationary setup, as part of the installation. This isn’t a great option as screening a video will interrupt the illusion of the shop space.


The mechanics may not always work smoothly during the final show, with new hiccups occurring each run. A lot of time (at least 6 weeks) needs to be reserved for fine-tuning and banging out the hiccups.

Rube Goldberg Machines are usually built by a team of people, whether by engineers for competitions or by creative agencies for special projects. Automated resetting and fine-tuning aside, building a large RGM will be very difficult and time-consuming for a beginner to accomplish single-handedly. Creating precise motions is way more difficult than it seems. It requires an excellent understanding of physics and science, which can be acquired with time.

However, I’m weighing whether the steep difficulties of building an RGM will detract from the purpose of a final year project? While I’d love to build a RGM, it’s important to remember that becoming great at mechanical design shouldn’t be the goal, but rather a stepping stone and tool used to create a great interactive experience. It’s not about backing away from a challenge but rather picking suitable challenges to invest in.

Other options?

One option is to remove the Rube-Goldberg machine entirely. This is a bit sad, and I will need to find something to replace it to create focus in the installation. As of now, I don’t think that having many small and distinct devices is enough to create a rich experience. The project needs a central unifying focus to tie the disparate elements together.

Another option: Instead of having the RGM as the main installation, an option is to build a mini-RGM / kinetic sculpture as one of the smaller curios.

What fascinates me most about RGMs is the unexpected and whimsical motion. Perhaps I could further explore the topic of motion in another direction?

Some notes to self

RGMs are often humorous, satirical, reliable and made out of spare materials. Other than the challenges above, should more interaction should be included into the RGM? If so, how so? Also, some thoughts after watching many different RGMs:

  • Aesthetics, visuals, rhythm choreography! Although its important to get from A to B or create a specific action, these motions can be more than that, not unlike a dance or narrative with suspense, climax, build up etc.
  • Being slow is not a bad thing
  • Show the audience everything; design visual sequences
  • Local materials?


As the installation is very much a product of process, good documentation is necessary. This will be done using various methods such as:

  • OSS progress updates (every 1 – 2 weeks)
  • A process log of what is done / accomplished each working day This will be useful in tracking progress and creating accountability.
  • Success and failure log
    This will log how many iterations it took for a prototype to work.