Some might consider Legos to be just toys, but their real-world applications go way beyond that. From fashion to power tools to robots, Legos have proven to be useful for all sorts of things. Recently, a group of students from University College London, Tsinghua University, and Peking University banded together in Beijing to create the world’s first low-cost atomic force microscope, aka a nanoscope, out of those brightly colored plastic bricks.
The students, along with a group of scientists, were brought together by the LEGO2NANO project with the sole purpose of creating a low-cost atomic force microscope (AFM). An AFM is different from a typical optical microscope in that it can scan objects as small as a millionth of a millimeter. The AFM consists of a tip, called a probe. This probe is placed close to the sample and is used to scan a small area to measure that part of the sample and map it out at a high resolution. Most of these microscopes require specialized parts, which means they are expensive to make: a typical AFM costs over $100,000 to build.
The students were only given five days to meet the challenge of building a less expensive AFM. They succeeded by creating a fully-functional nanoscope made of LEGO, microcontrollers, a few readily available electronics and parts from a 3D printer. The total cost? Around $500.
This obviously makes the LEGO AFM a game-changer. Such a low-cost microscope could bring more such technology to the masses. Not only could it be useful in education, but also for poorer countries that can’t currently afford this sort of technology in their clinics and hospitals.
The students involved in the project now hope to return to their respective universities to continue to develop these ideas to shape the future of nanotechnology.