MIT Scientists Use Lego Bricks To Build a Modular Experiment

Wednesday, 31 January 2018 - 6:26PM
Technology
Gadgets
Wednesday, 31 January 2018 - 6:26PM
MIT Scientists Use Lego Bricks To Build a Modular Experiment
< >
Melanie Gonick/MIT
Everyone loves Lego. The world's most popular toy is beloved by children and adults of all ages, and there's a lot that can be learned from these bricks that has relevance in scientific research.

The benefits of Lego go even further than this. A team at MIT are developing a system of microfluid manipulation - that's moving tiny amounts of liquid in a regimented and precise manner - which is built entirely out of Lego bricks.

The team required a system that was incredibly exact in its measurements, and which could be built to exact specifications in different parts of the world without requiring a lot of tedious measurement. The system also needed to be modular, so that it could be altered and edited for different experiments without the need to create custom equipment for each potential use.

The solution, rather than to design an all new universal system, was to use one that was already common worldwide. Lego bricks are a standard size no matter where they're encountered, they can slot together in whatever way scientists need, and their basic design is out of copyright, meaning that scientists can use 3D printing technology to create new bricks that lock into the existing Lego without any icky legal ramifications.



Some modifications are necessary in order to allow the bricks to minutely control the flow of liquids in experiments. Scientists have to carve very small channels into the bricks, either using sensitive machinery or by hand, so that they can connect to tubes and pipes that will be used in these experiments.

These modifications are easy to make, and allow scientists an incredibly sensitive control over the flow of the liquids they'll study in their experiments, so that measurements can be completely exact at all times. According to Crystal Owens, lead author on a paper that details the new microfluid system:

Opening quote
"You could then build a microfluidic system similarly to how you would build a Lego castle - brick by brick. We hope in the future, others might use LEGO bricks to make a kit of microfluidic tools."
Closing quote


There are some downsides to using Lego bricks for this kind of work. At present, scientists are limited to the types of fluids they can use with this equipment, as acidic or hot materials could melt the plastic. There's also an issue of scale - as small as some Lego bricks might be, they're still far too large for microscopic fluid control - although in fairness, scientists are having trouble getting small enough equipment for these kinds of studies in general.

There is a hope that at some point in the future, scientists will be able to produce Lego bricks that are either made of sturdier materials or that are coated in protective polymers (assuming Lego themselves are more concerned with making toys), that can link in with existing bricks to try and overcome these shortcomings, and when the future day does come that a universal system is designed for even smaller management of liquid, it'll likely take inspiration from what has already been proven to work.

So, the next time someone catches you playing with Lego and accuses you of wasting your time, you can politely inform them that you're practicing to conduct scientific research into microfluids.

How you'll convince them that a Lego model of BB-8 will aid this research is up to you.
Science
Science News
Technology
Gadgets
No