IBM is one of the world’s biggest and most established tech companies. So why are its engineers having to build their microscopes out of Lego pieces?
OK, so that’s not entirely accurate. IBM could easily afford the tens of thousands of dollars to buy the kind of ultrapowerful microscopes researchers need to carry out microfluidics, the endlessly fascinating approach to circuitry that uses liquid instead of metal wires. Yuksel Temiz, who works as a microelectronics engineer at IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory, decided to build one anyway. Despite costing just $300 in components, it’s turned out to be surprisingly effective — so effective, in fact, that he’s used it for papers published in major scientific journals.
“The initial idea was to have a system that can take tilted photos of our microfluidic chips for publications and presentations,” Temiz said. “The challenge is that such chips are too large — several centimeters — to be viewed in a regular microscope. But they still have fine features, down to several micrometers, that cannot be visualized using standard SLR cameras with macro lenses. Chips also have reflective surfaces, which pose another difficulty for imaging. The microscope I built combines the advantages of a microscope and a macro camera, at a fraction of their cost.”
As Temiz — whose work was recently profiled in Futurism — noted, the Lego microscope is no ordinary magnifying device. With the aid of six stepper motors for tilting the camera, rotating and moving the sample, and changing the focus and the magnification, it’s a multipurpose imaging system able to take both macro and micro photos from almost any angle. While it’s referred to as a microscope, it can also be used to take macro photos of small objects that would normally require pricey special lenses and tripods for an SLR camera. Other tech components include a Raspberry Pi camera for the imaging unit, while software Temiz coded himself gives it image processing and machine learning capabilities.
The Lego bricks are no gimmick, either. They mean the microscope can be quickly reconfigured depending on the application and type of sample being imaged.
“For example, if I want to change the location of the light source or have more room for a large sample, I do that by simply moving, adding, or removing Lego parts,” he said. “When disassembled, everything fits into a small box for transportation.”
Temiz isn’t keeping his invention to himself. After building it for his lab’s personal use, he realized that it wasn’t just useful for imaging chips, but for practically any sample used in biology classes at schools. With that in mind, he’s shared the instructions and documentation online. You’ll need Lego pieces, access to a 3D printer, and components like the $3 stepper motors to build it, but it’s certainly a whole lot more accessible than the ultra-expensive alternatives.
As Temiz said, by open-sourcing the design, others can help make it even better in the future. He hopes that a hobbyist electronics company might one day show interest in packaging all the pieces together in a kit.