IBM open sources $300* fully-functional LEGO®microscope design
By Katia Moskvitch
With a detailed instructions video, anyone can build it at home — you just need access to a 3D printer and have to buy a Raspberry Pi computer and an 8MP Raspberry Pi camera
Frustrated that his lab’s microscope kept producing bad images, IBM scientist Yuksel Temiz decided to build one himself. So he turned to his childhood obsession: LEGO.
Temiz used spare LEGO bricks, a Raspberry Pi computer, an 8MP Raspberry Pi camera and a commercial 3D printer to put together a 10-micrometer resolution microscope. With a final cost of about $300* (see bill of materials below), the device rivals commercial microscopes that cost several times more. It takes high-res pictures of small objects such as computer chips, some the size of a fingernail — with features just 10 micrometers in size (a micrometer is one thousandth of a millimeter).
And he even put together a LEGO-style instruction manual for it — as well as a step by step DIY video. This way, he hopes, teachers could get pupils to build one for their, say, biology class. Or it could be used in the developing world where buying a commercial high-resolution camera-equipped microscope might be too costly.
The microscope works so well that for the past two years Temiz and his colleagues in the microfluidics lab at IBM Research, just meters away from the picturesque Zurich lake, have been using the images they took with it in their papers, published in leading journals. They also use them for presentations at major conferences. Not all images relate to microfluidics — the area of science that involves manipulating fluids on miniscule chips in a very precise manner. The liquids can be blood or urine, used for cancer and infectious diseases research as well as understanding heart attack conditions, and more. Researchers also routinely take images of typical computer chips, and Temiz showed me, for instance, how to take a stunning close up of a fruit fly.
It all started with frustration. “We have advanced microfluidic technologies for applications related to healthcare and life sciences, and often we have the challenge of visualizing microfluidic chips because they typically have reflective surfaces,” says Temiz. In other words, when you point a regular camera on such a chip, it’s like if you were photographing a mirror. You see the camera in the image.
But with the LEGO microscope Temiz designed, it’s possible to take high resolution pictures and videos, tilting it at will incredibly accurately to avoid any unwanted glare. “It gives an artistic view of images for reports, papers and presentations,” says Temiz.
One day when a colleague brought his seven-year-old son to the lab, the boy wasn’t interested in the microscope — it does look rather scienc-y, after all. But as soon as Temiz showed him the instruction manual, and removed a few parts from the microscope, “it was his world,” says his father, fellow scientist Thomas Gervais. “He’s used to building LEGO toys, and as soon as he saw the instructions, he instantly started following them and assembling the device. He made it work in a few minutes, it was actually pretty impressive.”
Of course, the microscope doesn’t have to be made out of LEGO — it’s possible to 3D print all the components or mill them. But those approaches take a lot more time, and it would be tricky for people to do it at home. Another advantage of LEGO, Temiz says, is that the bricks are very precise and easily obtainable. And it’s possible to modify the structure by simply replacing a piece with a different one or assemble the microscope in a completely different way to take cross-section images, for example.
Anyone can download the instruction manual for free. In it, Temiz lists all the components, including the 3D printed ones, and wrote the microcontroller code in Arduino programming language to control small and low-cost stepper motors.
But ideally, Temiz would love to get his invention into schools one day. “Many kids love LEGO, and with this task, they can also learn some Raspberry Pi programming and simple image processing, and they can magnify daily objects or scientific samples as they would do with a regular science class microscope,” he says. And it would be great if it could also be used in the developing world and for home schooling, he adds, because it’s so much cheaper than off-the-shelf microscopes with similar capabilities.