Posted in biology, chemistry, medical imaging, Nanotechnology

Legos help nanotechnology

*Editor’s note*: I admit this isn’t high art, but it shows just how useful playing, creativity, and having at least a little bit of artistic flair can be in solving some of life’s big mysteries. Okay, on with the article completely reposted from Physorg:

A tiny white ball is release into a Lego board with peg pieces, immersed in a tank filled with glycerol to help researchers visualize what happens at nanoscale in microfluidic arrays. Credit: Will Kirk/JHU
A tiny white ball is release into a Lego board with peg pieces, immersed in a tank filled with glycerol to help researchers visualize what happens at nanoscale in microfluidic arrays. Credit: Will Kirk/JHU

Johns Hopkins engineers are using a popular children’s toy to visualize the behavior of particles, cells and molecules in environments too small to see with the naked eye. These researchers are arranging little LEGO pieces shaped like pegs to re-create microscopic activity taking place inside lab-on-a-chip devices at a scale they can more easily observe.

These lab-on-a-chip devices, also known as microfluidic arrays, are commonly used to sort tiny samples by size, shape or composition, but the minuscule forces at work at such a small magnitude are difficult to measure. To solve this small problem, the Johns Hopkins engineers decided to think big.

Led by Joelle Frechette and German Drazer, both assistant professors of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the university’s Whiting School of Engineering, the team used beads just a few millimeters in diameter, an aquarium filled with goopy glycerol and the LEGO pieces arranged on a LEGO board to unlock mysteries occurring at the micro- or nanoscale level. Their observations could offer clues on how to improve the design and fabrication of lab-on-a-chip technology. Their study concerning this technique was published in the Aug. 14 issue of Physical Review Letters.

The idea for this project comes from the concept of “dimensional analysis,” in which a process is studied at a different size and time scale while keeping the governing principles the same.

“Microfluidic arrays are like miniature chemical plants,” Frechette says. “One of the key components of these devices is the ability to separate one type of constituent from another. We investigated a microfluidic separation method that we suspected would remain the same when you scale it up from micrometers or nanometers to something as large as the size of billiard balls.”

With this goal in mind, Frechette and Drazer constructed an array using cylindrical LEGO pegs stacked two high and arranged in rows and columns on a LEGO board to create a lattice of obstacles. The board was attached to a Plexiglas sheet to improve its stiffness and pressed up against one wall of a Plexiglas tank filled with glycerol. Stainless steel balls of three different sizes, as well as plastic balls, were manually released from the top of the array; their paths to the bottom were tracked and timed with a camera.

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Author:

Beth Kelley is a writer and researcher with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.