4 September 2013

Walkie Scorchie vs. LEGO®

The last time London architecture threatened my very existence was in June 2000 on the day the Millennium Bridge opened and then unexpectedly wobbled a lot. It was thrilling (until I thought about those "When Things Go Wrong" kind of TV shows and wondered if I was about to end up in the Thames). So when I read yesterday that a new city office block under construction, nicknamed the Walkie Talkie thanks to its shape, was inadvertently creating a concentrated beam of sunlight strong enough to melt the plastic on the body of someone's Jaguar (and, it was soon discovered, hot enough to fry an egg), I had to check it out. If only to answer the terribly important question facing us all - can it melt LEGO?


The southern face of the building that's now popularly rechristened the Walkie Scorchie is curved, with the top floor being larger than the bottom. Since the windows were installed a giant concave mirror has been created which, it was discovered on Monday afternoon, focusses a lot of sun at this time of year on a row of shops on Eastcheap, a street close by. It may help you to imagine a child training a magnifying glass on an ant, or an alien death ray decimating humanity. This unexpected effect may seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight, but to be fair, the architects could hardly have anticipated that there would be sun in London.

I timed my arrival for the beginning of the lunch hour, and the road was heaving with office workers trying out this new free tanning solution for themselves and being shepherded off the road by a laconic policeman. Before beginning my experiment I stepped into the beam and found I did not wish to remain there beyond about a minute! I chatted to various people taking readings and two had recorded temperatures of 70°C (158°F), so you can appreciate all this hoo-hah isn't just a case of the English not knowing what heat feels like, although the chap on the left here seems a tad distressed.


So I pulled out my LEGO and settled it initially on some handy scaffolding that, in a Heath Robinsonesque approach, was hastily erected last night to protect the affected businesses. Whilst baking your LEGO is not a good thing to do kids, it does play a part in the testing processes that The LEGO Group undertake. At the AFOLCON event in Manchester in 2012 Bjarke V. Schønwandt, a Senior Manager of Consumer Perceived Quality, explained that they have an oven which they bake sets in, after which they test for weak points in the construction. Whilst melting is not a great fear, loss of model stability during play is - and this includes that day when Little Timmy chooses to play with the model that he'd left sitting by a window for six months. Hence the bake test. The LEGO Group did face a problem in 2008 when they tested their largest set ever, 10189 Taj Mahal - it didn't fit in the oven! So they took it to the Billund sauna. What they really needed was a giant south-facing convex-faced glass building... but as for me, I wasn't prepared to carry an entire model and leave it on a disgusting London pavement whilst half-blinded stargazers stagger about. My sacrificial offering was just a handful of bricks and figures, but they were at least chosen with a smidgen of forethought.

Mostly I wanted to include a range of plastics. These white bricks are new and are made of ABS, the plastic which most LEGO is made from.

The clear bricks are made from polycarbonate which LEGO use for all transparent elements as well as ones requiring additional strength, as it is a tougher plastic.


LEGO use more plastics than those two though, and no doubt have a variety of recipes of ABS to suit different needs. I don't know details of this - it is likely a trade secret in any event - so I took a couple of figs, the various parts of which which I imagine might consist of different plastics. A Friends minidoll (don't expect me to name her) with accessory seemed like an especially good candidate with her thin limbs and soft hair.

The new LEGO® Minifigures Series 11 features a Constable, which seemed appropriate for the occasion and he consequently dressed in a most unbecoming fashion to attract journalists. But on the quasi-scientific front, he was selected for his heat-absorbing black elements.

These two stacks of white bricks date from earlier than 1985 - probably a lot earlier, maybe 1960s even. I brought these along to see if they would suffer some yellowing, as is the plague of many a vintage LEGO piece. Both stacks were already yellowed, one lightly and the other quite badly, so I applied the stickers to stop UV light reaching the whole surface.

Why does old LEGO get yellowed? ABS can be flammable, and so throughout the plastics industry flame retardants are always added to the recipe. Up until the 1990s, when harmful effects on the ozone layer were proven, the flame retardant used was a compound of bromide. Those of you with decent memories of chemistry will recall that bromide is brown, and clever boffins may even recall that at an atomic level, bromide particles literally vibrate in UV light. This causes bromide to detach and roam around the ABS, and at the plastic's surface it re-attaches to oxygen molecules. Over time the accumulation of surface bromide gives the plastic a yellow and then even brown appearance. The effect is more pronounced on the casings of 1980s computers than LEGO, perhaps due to a different recipe of ABS. (The process is actually reversible with hydrogen peroxide solution under strong UV light, but I decided carrying a hazardous chemical into a city that has suffered terrorist attacks and now harbours a heat ray might not be the wisest idea ever.)

My victims were relocated along the path of doom for over an hour, whilst I sheltered nearby and chatted to the mix of onlookers, including a campaigner for clean energy who explained how clever countries were harnessing concentrated sunlight for good, and not for frying eggs and Jaguars. By 3pm, it looked like the heat ray was losing strength so I performed some unscientific tests. And the final results? LEGO 1, Walkie Scorchie 0. The only appreciable difference I could note, aside from the pieces being a bit hot and the black ones bordering on quite hot, was that the connection between the bobby's helmet and his little yellow head lost almost all it's clutch power; there was barely anything keeping that helmet on. Five hours later, the helmet clutch has improved a little but is still very poor compared to his colleague who stayed (fully clothed) here at the station. Switching their helmets suggests both the helmet and the head parts have lost clutch. The yellowed bricks are no more yellowed than before, so an hour of exposure even in concentrated UV rays causes no appreciable damage alone. So I gained little other than a mild headache and dehydration, but hey, this post is edutainment.

To finish, it seems vaguely appropriate to show you this LEGO rendition of an event that happened just a couple of streets away from here on 2 September 1666 - 347 years to the day before some chap's Jag got fried. This beautifully rendered and photographed model of the start of the Great Fire of London was built by the talented James Pegrum as part of his History of Britain series. Takes a lot of skill to make LEGO look this wobbly... makes me wonder if he'll ever recreate my fateful day on the Millennium Bridge?


20 comments:

  1. Only Hell shall melt LEGO Bricks! >:D

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    1. Hell and misguided POMO architects.

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    2. And LEGO's ABS recycling plant.

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  2. I didn't know that about the Yellowing. I figured it was just a result of the ABS being old, that some how the coloring agent just yellowed or something. So you're saying that newer parts don't have this problem? Sweet.

    So say I'm working on a very large(by normal minifig MOCing standards) truck, and I'm calling upon a lot of old white bricks that are noticeable yellowed, what can I actually do, and what would I need to render them white and pretty again?

    This was honestly the most enjoyable read I've seen from you in a while. And that's saying something because I always find your reads enjoyable Caper. Thanks so much for suffering in the name of AFOL education. *transinternational brohug*

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    1. You can find a lot of info about un-yellowing old bricks out in the LEGOverse. I'd suggest googling the words lego yellowing peroxide, and you should get to what you need in short order.

      In short form, the recipe involves using hydrogen peroxide, detergent and ultraviolet light (sunlight will do). I haven't tried it myself yet.

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    2. I will post about un-yellowing one day - I bought the H2O2 but became despondent (or possibly just lazy) about the testing process. So don't wait for me... as Anonymous says, there's lots out there on the net already and I'm unlikely to be adding anything new to the discussion.

      The best place to start is http://retr0bright.wikispaces.com/ who are the guys that discovered the process. They're computer geeks not LEGO geeks, but it is a great site and taught me a lot. Results with LEGO seem to be a lot more varied if what I read on forums is true. You'll find threads on Brickset and Eurobricks.

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    3. This is why I suggested the google, rather than one specific source. Some people rave about how amazingly good a job the process does. Others talk about over-bleaching and altering the color from the original (with pics of the results for your delectation), which isn't really more desirable than leaving the bricks yellowed. This is what made me queasy about testing, leaving me in the same position as you: despondent and possibly lazy, but untried in any case.

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    4. Thanks Caper, I appreciate the link. Hmmm okay well I was just gonna try it with the white bricks anyhow seeing as they're the noticeably dingy ones. And since I'm not as crazy about my bricks as you guys are(understandably) I'll give it a shot. Worst case Scenario, I'm out a few bucks and some lucky bricklink store selling white gets a nice order. Thanks so much guy.

      BTW...what really is the best account/sign in thingy to use here? I'd really like to respond and have my icon or image of choice by my name. I'd like to be a regular.

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    5. Hmm I 'm not sure Dave, possibly Google seeing as they own Blogger?

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  3. caperberry, can I just tell you your blog is fantastic. I love how it's evolving beyond just new elements to other offbeat topics surrounding LEGO. Keep up the great work!

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    1. Yes... great blog. I check it with alacrity on a daily basis, and am delighted when something new eventually appears. But... I miss the elements: those discussions are what really makes this site unique. On the other hand, the writing here is always top-notch, so even when it wanders afield, as it has been doing lately, it still makes for a fun read.

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    2. Thanks Kevin, that's great to read. Always anxious when i go off-topic :O)

      Anonymous, fret not, it's been an unusual week really and I shan't make a habit of it. I had a post brewing about an exciting new mould when the death ray distracted me so that's coming up.

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    3. p.s. Anonymous... thanks for the daily hits! If that bores you though, you can sign up via email, or follow me on Facebook or Twitter to get notifications. See right hand column. You get the occasional extra bit of waffle from me on social media too.

      Tip for anyone using Facebook, just Liking my Page doesn't mean you'll always see my posts in your Newsfeed. If you want to ensure you don't miss any, hover over the "Liked" button on my Page, and click "Get Notifications".

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  4. Seems the poor bobby's head got all sweaty...

    Interesting thing about the yellowed white pieces. My worst specimen is actually closer to modern tan than to white. I've used those pieces for building a brick wall on an old castle. It felt kinda appropriate. Apparently some of the more hardcore AFOL:s have utilized the yellowing phenomenon to construct subtle gradients, but I lack the pieces and patience to go there...

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  5. I think you've got the makings of a new blog series here - EXTREME LEGO.
    Our intrepid reporter takes his Lego model down a volcano, through a hurricane, to the Fukushima reactor zone, to the dark side of the moon... to see how it survives.

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    1. Lego seems to do quite well in outer space.

      http://www.universetoday.com/93070/toronto-teens-launch-lego-man-in-space/

      http://www.ubergizmo.com/2012/03/lego-space-shuttle-travels-to-outer-space/

      I think it would handle the radiation in Fukushima well, though, although it might be too contaminated to actually play with afterwards (without Hazmat suits).

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    2. I'd best take out life insurance it seems...

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  6. Ha ! Great job, Tim - this post is hilarious !

    If you do find your bricks displaying signs of delayed yellowing, just don't try to copy my LEGO bleaching technique; after all, when you're gone, who will update your blog ?

    ;-)

    Keep 'em coming !

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    1. Plus, I have no WOAFOL to glare at my failures.

      Cheers Dr Dave!

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  7. Very interesting. Love your dedication to exploration!

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