A $300 Lego Microscope Can Outperform Several Expensive Microscopes

Microelectronics engineers at IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory often have to deal with microscopic elements, and Yuksel Temiz happens to be one of such engineers. A part of his job is to develop, test, and photograph certain miniature diagnostic tools that are later used in the medical fields. Keeping in mind the limitations of the human eye, the task can get quite troublesome without the help of powerful and precise microscopes.

Considering the high costs of the microscopes that Temiz depended on for his work, he decided to build one himself out of Lego bricks, and it only cost him $300. The pictures he took using his budget microscope were later published in scientific journals that included, “Electro-actuated valves and self-vented channels enable programmable flow control and monitoring in capillary-driven microfluidics”, “Programmable hydraulic resistor for microfluidic chips using electrogate arrays”, and “Immuno-gold silver staining assays on capillary-driven microfluidics for the detection of malaria antigens”.

The microscopes that are already present in the market are not just expensive but they have their limitations as well. Temiz realized these limitations when he was asked to capture high-resolution images and videos of the microfluidic chips that he was working on for an IBM’s Event. He was required to capture the images at an angle to provide a more precise and specific view of the fluid running through microscopic canals. However, the existing microscopes were only capable of capturing images from the top. Hence, by using a camcorder, a microlens, and a tripod, Temiz built his own microscope that got the job done in the best way possible.

For those who have had the experience of photographing reflective surfaces know that it can get frustrating at times. Similar was the case with the reflective surfaces of microfluidic chips. At times the camera itself would show up on the image, or the lighting source would cause troubles for the engineer. Temiz’s Lego microscope solved these issues. After a few successful trials of the microscope, Temiz along with his managers, decided to make the project open source.

The microscope does not actually help with the research. It has only one purpose and that is to capture an image from an angle. If images are captured at a certain angle such that they show a detailed view of the object that is being captured, they can prove to be important and helpful for presentations. Taking an example of microfluidic chips, they are 3D structures with actual microscopic canals running through them. If they are captured from the top, the fluids running through canals cannot be shown distinctively to the viewers.

Microfluidic chips are not the only miniature objects that can be clicked using this microscope, but it can prove to be of great help in school laboratories as well. When tested with animal tissues and cells from the biology labs, it showed spectacular results. This could significantly enhance the learning experience of young pupils. The microscope also has a few programmable aspects to it, and after getting the hands a little dirty with Python, school children can also try and program the microscope to their own needs.

In case the kids are not interested in the programmable aspect of the microscope, they can try and assemble the microscope in several ways to perform different functions. Since it is made out of Legos, it is quite easy and interesting. What’s more exciting than having Legos in the school laboratories?

In the images that made it to the above-mentioned research papers, Temiz placed the angled images of microscopic chips that were snapped using the Lego microscope, along with a top-down image of the same chip taken from a regular microscope. After observing those two distinct images of the same object it was further proven that the Lego microscope can only be used for taking improved high-resolution images of microscopic objects. Furthermore, people who reviewed those published papers had only a little to say about the camera angles of the images, but they were truly amazed by the quality of the images.

When asked about the journey that he undertook before landing on the final version of the microscope, Temiz stated that he initially started building the microscope using a 3D printer. Midway through the project, he realized that the components he was printing were similar to Lego Bricks. Hence, he started building the microscope while solely relying on Lego bricks. However, there are a few components that still required to be printed, but most of the other components can be bought from any store that sells Lego bricks.

Temiz plans on getting in a partnership with certain electronic companies and Lego itself to initiate a manufacturing and sales stream, so that the microscope can be made available to the general public.

Temiz has also written a manual, that is available on GitHub, in the format of a manual that comes along with any other Lego product. After taking help from that manual and having the necessary equipment at hand, assembling the microscope is, at max, an hour-long job. IBM Research team has further elaborated on the assembly of the microscope in a YouTube video.

To build a base, place a 32×32 Lego baseplate on 26×26 cm wooden slab, and attach the two pieces together with double-sided tape.

Moving on to linear actuators, place the 1×4 sliding pieces on the border of a 6×16 plate. Once done, attach another 6×8 plate to the setup using brick corners. Afterward, get hold of 3D printed rack, 2×4 plate, and two plates with slides. Attach them together in a pattern such that a hammer looking structure is produced, and superglue the joints together. Slide the hammer into the socket created by the borders on a 6×16 plate. At this point, a 3D printed motor adapter, a 5-volt stepper motor, and a 3D printed gear would be required. Fit the motor into the adapter and add the gear on top of it. Place the setup perpendicular to the hammer look-alike structure already placed on the plate.

The camera module would require M2 screws, an angular plate, 3D printed adapter, and an 8mp Raspberry Pi V2 camera. Other than that, the rotary stage again requires a 3D printed adapter, along with a 2×4 plate, a profile brick, and an octagon plate. For illumination, use LED-backlit module with removed LED and place it in a 3D printed housing. Attach a high-power LED to the setup.

The electronics required for the microscope mainly consist of an Arduino microcontroller along with a joystick setup. Finally, combine all the separate pieces of equipment on the baseplate that was prepared beforehand. Nothing technical is required for this last step, and only some basic physics needs to be kept in mind.

Assembling the microscope is not the difficult part, and the real struggle begins while photographing the microscopic objects. The light angles, size of the object, and camera angles need to be considered before continuing with the shoot.

Transmitted light photography is one of the oldest techniques that is used to capture microscopic specimens using a microscope. In this technique, the light source is placed directly below the specimen and a condenser is used to concentrate the light on to the specimen. The image can be produced without a condenser; however, it will be comparatively darker.

According to Temiz, the Lego microscope is not a scientific breakthrough but just a mere tool to help with the research in the laboratories.

With all the hype that this Lego microscope is creating, it is worth pointing out that this is not the first time that someone has created a microscope out of Lego bricks. According to an article published on CNET in 2014, some Lego artist named Carl Merriam had already created a fully functional Lego microscope.

Building real-life practical applications with Lego is not something new and several examples already exist. A curiosity Rover Lego set was introduced by The Danish toy company in 2013. The Lego set had the potential of creating a similar model of Nasa’s original Mars Rover. Not only just this, but it could also perform similar functions in your living room as the original version of it would perform on Red Planet!

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