Is there anything that Lego blocks can’t do? People use them to solve Rubik’s Cubes faster than ever, create bionic arms, fix crumbling monuments, and build actual houses. And now, MIT scientists have figured out a way to use them for actual biomedical research.
This isn’t actually the first time that scientists have used Lego blocks for science. Back in 2014, researchers at Iowa University employed the Danish toys for science research. According to the scientists in charge of the study, they used transparent Lego blocks to measure and contain gel and soil in plant growth environments. This was all possible, they claimed, because of the precise nature of Lego’s manufacturing methods–but more on that in a minute.
According to a new paper published in the journal Lab on a Chip, this new research goes way further, providing a method to build any kind of micro-fluidic laboratory in a matter of minutes just by using previously-prepared Lego blocks. (Microfluidics are the basis for lab-on-a-chip devices regularly used in practical applications like DNA analysis, cell behavior, or molecular biology research.)
The team used micro-milling techniques and a CAD program to carefully “draw” the 500-micron-wide channels for the fluids on the Lego blocks. These tiny embossed lines, which are then sealed with a transparent adhesive, are carefully laid out so each brick’s channel input and output can precisely align with the next and previous brick. This allows scientists to easily assemble any microfluidic laboratory, something that before required expensive custom prototyping and manufacturing methods. Depending on their configuration, the devices are capable of “sorting cells, filtering fluids, and encapsulating molecules in individual droplets,” according to the researchers.
The MIT team explains that the reason they could do this with Lego is the blocks’ high manufacturing precision standards. Made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)–a hard plastic that gets injected inside custom-made molds and machines–Lego blocks have an extremely low margin of error. The molds get retooled after short periods of time to guarantee that every single piece is perfect, and they get discarded when they can’t get retooled anymore. “Due to the precision of the brick molding machines,” a Lego worker told me at their factory in Billund, Denmark, “there are very few ‘bad’ pieces.” Only 18 elements in every million, he said, fail to meet the Lego’s manufacturing standards.
The MIT scientists explain, however, that they can’t do everything with Lego blocks. ABS plastic can react badly to some fluids, so they can’t use them for some experiments. But according to Anastasios John Hart–the associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT in charge of this project–“if the kind of device you want to make, and the materials you work with, are suitable for this kind of modular design, this is an easy way to build a microfluidic device for lab research.” And if it is not, you can always keep working on building your favorite giant spaceship.