How Legos Are Solving Nanotech Mysteries

German Drazer

Legos have popped up in all kinds of quirky places, from this ingenious animation and scores of architectural models, to graduate school robotics programs. But they’ve never been used in nanotechnology–until now.

Joelle Frechette and German Drazer, two professors of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins, are using Lego models to predict how molecules would behave in “labs on a chip.” These labs work like tiny mazes, and are used to sort molecules. But the problem is that they’re so tiny that the dynamic forces are difficult to study. So Frechette and Drazer created a large-scale model of those miscroscopic arrays using Legos. By watching how steel and plastic balls work their way through the Lego array, they’ve discovered rules which can be extrapolated to how molecules behave in a lab of a chip.

Their findings were just published in Physical Review Letters, a leading physics journal. As the authors note, their set-up was so simple that it could easily be recreated by in a high-school science project.

lego science

First, they took a lego board and studded it with pieces, to form a lattice of rows and columns. Then they immersed the board, vertically, in gloopy glycerol. Finally, they released steel and plastic balls into the board, and recorded how they descended with cameras. They repeated the experiment with the board at various angles, which thus affects how many pegs the balls hit as they bump through the array.

Frechette and Drazer argue that on a nanoscale, a similar technique can sort out molecules. Tiny differences in size, roughness, and charge will affect how each of them bounce through the array, and where, exactly, they end up.


Score one more for Lego, the little toy company that could.

[press release; image above, by Will Kirk for Johns Hopkins University, shows Dr. German Drazer]