Sunday, 22 April 2012

Elephant No. 203: Polymer Clay Figure

I made a polymer clay button a few weeks ago, but it's been years since I've made a three-dimensional figure with this material.

Since I wrote about polymer clay as a material in the previous post, I'll just cover today's activity here.

As before, I pulled out the multitude of polymer clay colours I had, in a couple of different brands.

I started by kneading the same grey I used for the button. Because the grey was somewhat dry, it took a long time to make it reasonably malleable. I recommend using new stuff if you can.

Once the grey was soft enough to work, I make the various components for my tiny elephant.

Once the little parts were made, I stuck them together. Because the clay is a bit sticky, the parts hold together with a minimal amount of pressure.

To finish up, I poked in eyes with the point of a bamboo skewer and added a sort of crown. I say "sort of" because the material I used for the crown was very sticky and hard to mould. It also had a tendency to flop over. There must be some happy medium between clay that requires a lot of kneading to become even moderately soft, and clay that's so soft it's nearly useless. If I were more of an expert with this material, I might know this.

When it was moulded as much as I wanted, I put it in the oven at 130˚C (275˚F) for 15 minutes, which is about what you need for this thickness. I thought it might become somewhat deformed in the oven—that the trunk or tail might flop, for example—but it looked exactly the same when it came out.

Once the grey clay was soft enough, it only took about 20 minutes to mould this little guy. I didn't love the process, but that was mostly because the material I used was so variable in quality. I do, however, like the final result, and I'm rather pleased I could make something so small.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Given that it's Earth Day today, this story comes from the world of biofuels. One of the key requirements in producing ethanol is using the right enzymes to break down plant matter. Enter elephant dung.

Current methods of ethanol production require the use of food crops such as wheat, corn and sugar cane. Food crops are easier to convert because of the sugars they contain. In simplified terms, sugars convert to yeasts, providing the necessary enzymes to create biofuels. This type of "first-generation" ethanol production, however, places a great deal of pressure on food supplies, particularly in the developing world. The hunt is thus on to source enzymes that will break down plant chaff—the stalks, leaves and other inedible parts of plants left over once food and animal feed have been produced. This type of fuel is known as "second-generation" ethanol.

Scientists are currently looking in some weird and wacky places for these enzymes. A fungus that destroyed soldiers' tents during the Second World War is one possibility. Others include deep-sea volcanic vents, salt lakes and termite guts. As Feike Sijbesma, CEO of the Dutch company DSM has said, “If we can look at strange and unconventional places to find enzymes, we do. Nature has been busy for millions of years.”

Some of the most promising research, however, involves the use of enzymes found in elephant dung. Elephants, after all, eat all kinds of plant material, and are highly effective in breaking it down to supply them with the energy they need. Although the research is still in its early stages, these types of enzymes are currently considered the holy grail of biofuel research, with an estimated value in the billions of dollars.

Maybe poachers will one day turn their attention from ivory to a different sort of elephant product.

Kallie, a 29-year-old African elephant, newly arrived at the
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, 2011.

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