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LEGO Microscope, And It Isn’t A Kit

Sep 30, 13 LEGO Microscope, And It Isn’t A Kit

While many children (and even adults) spend their time constructing things such as LEGO Pirate Ships or perhaps a LEGO Death Star, something more serious was built with the plastic blocks.

In the reported first of its kind event, LEGO2NANO brought together students, experienced makers and even scientists to build a cheap but effective Atomic Force Microscope (AFM), a device able to probe objects only a millionth of a millimeter in size – far smaller than anything an optical microscope can observe.

This involved students from University College London (UCL), Tsinghua University and Peking University. But not just any students; we’re talking PhD students, so don’t think you can probably replicate the results with the box of bricks and those miscellaneous sets you have lying around.

More importantly while several news outlets have noted the use of LEGOs and that it was co-sponsored by the LEGO Foundation, it is worth adding that the student team was to “build a functional nanoscope, using only LEGO, Arduino microcontrollers, 3D-printed parts and consumer electronics.”

In other words, this was a bit of a step up from even the Mindstorm LEGO kits that most of us have seen.

However, it does suggest that from low-cost scientific instruments, affordable consumer hardware and open-source software it is possible to build something truly extraordinary. Moreover, it has been reported that the total cost of building a fully-functional nanoscope that consisted of LEGO bricks and those other parts was around $500.

That’s not too shabb,y given that a typical AFM can cost more than $100,000 to build. This has already been called a game changer.

The sad part about this, which few are pointing out, is that while the LEGO Foundation may try to inspire this sort of creativity, it really doesn’t exist in many of the off-the-shelf kits that LEGO currently sells. Sure, building a Star Wars Death Star might be a task for Big Bang Theory’s fictional Doctor Sheldon Cooper, but the truth is that it isn’t really that difficult. It’s just time consuming.

Where is the challenge when the instructions are printed and all the parts are there?

The same goes for many of the kits LEGO offers. The company moved from generic boxes of blocks, windows, wheels and gears and moved to plastic molded shapes that can be used to a create quick convincing Tie Fighter, pirate ship or castle. Maybe things look all the more like what we’d expect, but isn’t the imagination or at least the imaginative process lost along the way.

While many politicians and business leaders suggest that math and science isn’t pushed enough in school, consider that LEGO has a foundation that pushes this sort of advanced building initiatives and often makes a big deal of it. Why not try to inspire the general LEGO builder instead?

Wired noted that the microscopes were developed on a recent trip to Beijing by PhD student Alice Pyne and 11 other UCL students who teamed up with students from Tsinghua University and Peking University, along with students from Oxford University and Singapore University of Technology and Design.

“In five days, Pyne’s team successfully built and tested a working AFM,” Wired reported. “Most of the parts they used were either sourced from electronics markets in Beijing’s Zhongguancun technology hub, 3D-printed, or constructed from Lego or Make Blocks. Two specialist components were ordered online prior to the trip.”

That’s actually quite impressive. The question is how far ahead could LEGO get more kids if, instead of providing kits that assembled perfectly into what LEGO had in mind, they went back to the basics and allowed imagination to flow.

Of course, in this world of video game (make that interactive entertainment) downloads, streaming media and smartphones, maybe a box of plastic parts might be considered somewhat low-tech.

Then again, maybe this should go the other direction. LEGO’s have been used to create 3D printers and all sorts of other “maker” projects. If it can’t inspire, the company does know something about pre-packaged products! Let’s just hope they can really keep the costs down.

Have you seen the price of that pirate ship?

Image Credit: Guan Xin-He / Beijing Daily

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About 

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer and has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and the fitness sports industry for more than 15 years. In that time his work has appeared in more than three dozen publications including Newsweek, PC Magazine and Wired. His work has also appeared on Forbes.com, Inc.com, Cnet.com, and Fortune.com. Peter is a regular writer for redOrbit.com.

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