A Centrifuge Built From VCR Parts





Introduction: A Centrifuge Built From VCR Parts

A centrifuge is a very useful piece of equipment for isolating aquatic organisms. Centrifuging a sample of water containing micro organisms will drive them to the bottom of the container, where they become more concentrated and easier to manipulate. A high speed laboratory model costing several hundreds of dollars isn't necessary for the purpose, something much simpler will do the job quite adequately. At the most basic, you can just tie a piece of cord SECURELY to the container and whirl it around your head. You can easily generate a centrifugal force of 10 G with this method ( but do it outside in an open area, where nothing will get damaged if it comes loose ! )

A safer and more convenient solution is a motor driven apparatus, such as the one I built using parts from an old video recorder. It cost me only a couple of dollars for the plastic bowl housing the rotor head and some PVC pipe fittings, all the other parts were obtained from my “junk collection” of defunct VCRs and other “dead” electronic gadgets. If you don't have a dead VCR lying around, just ask a few friends and you are bound to find someone who will give you one. The parts required are the video recorder spinning head mechanism, plus the video cassette loading motor with its drive pulleys. Some newer VCR models may not have belt drives, a good alternative source for these components is an old inkjet printer, but these usually have stepper motors which require a special driver circuit to power them. If you can find an ordinary DC motor which will fit the pulleys it is much simpler than trying to get the stepper motor working. You will also need a 12 Volt DC plug pack. It should be capable of supplying at least 400 milliamps, otherwise it will probably burn out before long. If you need to, you can buy a new one for about $ 5, but these are very common items found in garage sales for only one or two dollars.

Step 1:

Construction of the Centrifuge : 

The VCR parts were extracted along with their mounting brackets and screws, keeping the PCB with the cassette motor drive connections intact. The wiring to the video head rotor is not needed and can be disconnected. Figs 1 & 2 show the video head as removed from above and below, Figs 3 & 4 show the disassembled rotor components, and Figs 6 & 7 the reassembled configuration. The first step is to remove any superfluous bits from the video head rotor, including the PCB and the stator windings underneath ( Fig 3 ). You need to take off the flywheel with the magnetic ring to get at the inside of the rotor.

Step 2:

At this stage, prepare an old CD by cutting out the centre section to fit over the bottom section of the rotor. Drill 3 small holes in the CD and the bottom rotor section to take small self tapping screws and fix the CD to the bottom rotor section as shown in Fig 5.
The two halves of the rotor are separated and the top section refitted upside down, as shown in Figs 6. The magnetic sensor heads and their wires can also be discarded. Save the screws from the underside ( which is now the upper side ) of the top rotor section.

Step 3:


 Replace the flywheel also in the reverse orientation to its original position. You should now have an assembly which looks like Fig 7, seen with the assembly turned upside down..

Depending on the model of VCR, you should have a mounting frame attached to the video head rotor with 3 or 4 screw fixing points. You will need to make up a base with some brackets or posts to allow the rotor to be mounted in a horizontal position. In the video recorder, the rotors are mounted at an angle to the horizontal to allow the tape to be scanned diagonally, so the mounting points will usually need to be at varying heights to get the rotor level when it is used as a centrifuge. Try to get it as accurately level as possible, otherwise your centrifuge will wobble wildly when it is running. I used mdf board for the base and two posts, and a metal bracket for the third mounting. You can use some washers under the mounting frames to adjust the level accurately with a spirit level / bubble level .

When the rotor assembly is mounted on the base board, the drive motor and its pulley will need to be located so that the drive belt runs around the detachable collet just above the reversed flywheel. The driving pulley and collet must be aligned in the same plane, otherwise the belt will be thrown off when the motor starts. Since the drive motor and pulley configuration will vary greatly between different models of VCR, I will not provide any specific details for this step, you will have to figure it out to suit whatever you are using. Fig 8 below shows how I arranged mine. By the way, if you don't have a drive belt of suitable length, a strong rubber band will also work.

Step 4:

The next step is to cut a hole in the base of the centrifuge bowl to fit over the rotor, and then fix it to the CD underneath with some small screws. Figs 9 & 10 show the bowl fitted in place. Make sure the bowl is accurately centred so that the spinning tubes can not touch the sides of the bowl. ( Of course, you need to get a bowl of the right diameter to accommodate your centrifuge tubes in the first place. I used a plastic microwave cooking cover )

Step 5:


To complete the centrifuge you will need to add the trunnions and rings to carry your centrifuge tubes. The tubes I use are 100 mm x 12 mm diameter, so I made two tube carriers from black plastic irrigation tubing and fitted them with trunnions as illustrated in Fig 11. The trunnions are formed from a threaded PVC collar and two self tapping screws. A piece of foam rubber is pushed into the bottom of the tube carriers to cushion the glass tubes, and another screw is inserted across the bottom to hold the tubes in place. The aluminium bracket screwed to the top of the rotor has holes for the ends of the trunnion screws, as seen in Fig 12.

 To use the centrifuge, I fill the centrifuge tubes to about 15 mm from the top with the liquid, making the levels in each tube as near to equal as possible. They are inserted into the carrier tubes and a piece of thin mdf board is placed on top of the bowl as a lid, which helps to reduce the wind resistance. The centrifuge is run for about 5 minutes at 250 rpm, which generates a force of about 6 G. This is adequate to concentrate aquatic micro organisms without damaging them. It will need to be clamped to the work bench so that it doesn't run around and develop uncontrollable vibrations.  Please be aware that this apparatus will cause some major damage to your fingers if you put them inside the bowl when it is running. Be very careful !

Speed Control
I did not use a speed control on the motor, because the centrifuge works quite well for my purposes at the maximum speed.  Depending on the motor that you use, a speed control may be useful.  This can be easily added through a LED dimmer control, shown above. These can be found on eBay for about $ 3.  The wiring is very simple, with two terminals for the 12 V DC input and two terminals for the regulated output.



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    18 Discussions

    I couldn't quite grasp if the original BLDC motor is used in the 'fuge. Are you reusing the BLDC controller from the PCB? I did see a step to remove it, I didn't see a step to add it back (probably just missed it) and BLDC will not turn without the controller that's on that board. Any tips on hooking that up to a DC source?

    1 reply

    The motor which drives the video head rotor is just the 12 V DC cassette tape drive motor. It is driven directly from a 12 V DC plug pack. The video head rotor is driven by this through a belt drive and doesn't require any electrical connection.

    You could also just use an old corded drill.

    Nicely done. I was trying to come up with a centrifuge for forcing liquid plastic into rubber molds for making miniature figures for a train set. The mixed liquid plastic is too light for gravity to do the work, unlike the old lead figure method. Now to figure out how to deliver the liquid plastic while the device is spinning. Probably a simple funnel through the protective cover as well as some serious clamps for holding the molds. One of my local junk stores has a suit of armor that I might invest in first. :-) Thanks for the excellent ible.

    2 replies

    How long does your plastic stay liquid ? And how big are the moulds ? If they are small enough that you could have a reservoir of plastic in the upper part of the centrifuge tube connected with the mould underneath, it might work. Otherwise, what about a connection in the bottom of the mould to a small vacuum pump, which would suck the plastic into the mould ? You can buy these on ebay for under $ 20.

    I have about a minute before the plastic starts to harden, so maybe the vacuum pump would be a better idea. The items I want to mold are N scale so maybe 1.5cm in height.

    A centrifuge like this could be a life saver in under developed parts of the world. I've spoken with medics who've done care in low-tech regions and they've been reduced to the whirling sock on a rope method for blood separation.

    But based on my own, uhmmm, experiences with lab centrifuges, I would recommend a couple of enhancements.

    1) Make the base wider and able to take a clamp to the worksurface. The principle cause of catastrophic centrifuge imbalance is a breaking test tube while the unit is spinning. That will happen a lot more often than you think.

    The angular momentum of the remaining single test tube is shockingly high even in a low speed rig like this.  If one tube fails under speed, a lightweight design like this just won't vibrate, it will take on a life of its own and go on merry adventures about the lab. The combination of oscillating vibration and gyroscopic precession make the unit move jerk and even fly in random directions that make it look more like the target of a poltergeist than a physical phenomena.

    That's the main reason that commercial units are so heavy. It's not just internal armor  it's to keep the damn thing on the bench.

    Ah, don't ask me how I know this. Long story.

    -) If possible, rig a kill switch sensitive to vibration. Not sure how to do that low tech but it will keep the unit from self-destructing  when the tube breaks.

    2 replies

    I was thinking the same thing! Well, actually for research purposes in remote places. I'm adding this to my "Jungle Lab" collection!

    I understand your concerns about the unit vibrating and running amok, and I am well aware of the tendency for centrifuges to walk about on the bench if not perfectly balanced. But perhaps you have missed my warning in step 5 : "It will need to be clamped to the work bench so that it doesn't run around and develop uncontrollable vibrations. " Also because it is only running at about 250 rpm, it doesn't have the same inertia as a heavy device running at much higher speeds. It wasn't designed for use in medical laboratories, but it could possibly be used for some simple blood testing etc, in a pinch. Thanks for your input.

    Nice, simple and cheap.

    I am totally unfamiliar with spin art. Does it involve spinning a flat board and dribbling paint on to it ? It would be possible to do this by attaching the board to the rotor with a couple of screws, You would probably also need to slow down the motor using a LED dimmer control.

    They won't live long enough to concentrate a few kilos of U-238 with this apparatus, it would take centuries.

    Thanks for your comments. Although this is not a high speed device, it could still cause a nasty injury if you put your fingers inside. I would not recommending using any kind of centrifuge device which does not have a protective shield.

    And I was thinking also of parts breaking off (will happen eventually), so the protective shield around and above is well thought.