Researchers at MIT Use Lego to Build a Microlab for Fluid Experiments
Researchers at MIT have published a paper explaining how they used Lego bricks to build a tiny laboratory to host an experiment. The paper titled, 'High-precision modular microfluidics by micromilling of interlocking injection-molded blocks' published in the journal Lab on a Chip describes how the scientists built the miniature lab to conduct an experiment about manipulating the flow of liquids at milliliter scales.
This study, known as microfluidics, requires scientists to build microfluidic experiments on flat two-dimensional chips that have been etched with tiny channels and ports that are then set up to perform operations, such as mixing, sorting, pumping, and storing fluids as they flow. But these small-scale labs are difficult to replicate and are time-consuming and tricky to build. This problem led researchers from MIT to explore new materials for building the labs that would provide precision and consistency, enter Lego bricks.
Lego provides consistency and precision
Using Lego would allow experiments to be built all over the world to the exact same formula, by taking advantage of the Lego’s consistent global size and specifications. “LEGOs are fascinating examples of precision and modularity in everyday manufactured objects,” says Anastasios John Hart, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.
To be fair, the MIT scientists weren’t using your off the shelf Lego kits to conduct the experiments, they did have to cut fine channels into different bricks to allow the fluids to flow through them. They also added tiny seals between the microns-wide gaps between the bricks. Each brick that had a new channel engraved on it that was able to be lined up and clicked into place with a corresponding brick.
The brilliance of Lego allows the researchers to test and rebuild the design of the lab quickly and efficiently. “You could then build a microfluidic system similarly to how you would build a LEGO castle — brick by brick,” says lead author Crystal Owens, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “We hope in the future, others might use LEGO bricks to make a kit of microfluidic tools.” While there are also downsides to the use of bricks, for instance, the type of plastic can’t handle all kinds of fluids that might be needed. Overall the idea of using a ready-made solution to the problem opens doors to cross lab collaboration on experiments that are notoriously hard to replicate.
Lego microfluid toolkit the goal
Anastasios John Hart who is also director of MIT’s Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity and the Mechanosynthesis Group has a research focus on new manufacturing processes. He had experienced the difficulty of developing microfluid labs and teamed up with Crystal Owens to find another solution. “Over the years, I’ve had peripheral exposure to the field of microfluidics and the fact that prototyping microfluidic devices are often a difficult, time-consuming, resource-intensive process,” Hart says. Their research led them to stumble upon lego bricks which are close in size to the chips previously used in the lab creation. “Because LEGOs are so inexpensive, widely accessible, and consistent in their size and repeatability of mounting, disassembly, and assembly, we asked whether LEGO bricks could be a way to create a toolkit of microfluidic or fluidic bricks,” Hart says.