Students from UCL and Chinese Universities team up for a second LEGO2NANO hackathon to develop a low-cost Atomic Force Microscope

Students and researchers from UCL’s Engineering and MAPS Faculties, Institute of Making and London Centre for Nanotechnology teamed up with their counterparts at Tsinghua and Peking Universities in China to develop a low-cost and easy-to-use Atomic Force Microscope (AFM). Their goal was to make AFMs accessible to schools, so that schoolchildren can learn about nanoscience in the best way possible: by doing their own experiments.

Many of the world’s most pressing problems involve processes at the nanoscale: how to battle new viruses, develop better batteries, combat environmental pollutants. To image the nanoscale – which is too small to be seen by the naked eye or even the best optical microscope – the instrument of choice is the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM). AFMs feature a tiny needle that scans across a surface, like a finger reading a text in Braille. It can record the shape of the surface with exquisite resolution, allowing even individual atoms to be visualised. Unfortunately, commercial AFMs are very expensive (up to £100,000), making them inaccessible to users outside the research community.

Despite the high cost, the main components of an AFM are fairly simple: a high-precision movable stage, a small cantilever that bends if it gets close enough to the sample surface, and an optical system that senses the bending of the cantilever. This simplicity prompted the LEGO2NANO team to start designing a low-cost, open-source version of an AFM, which could be assembled and operated by schoolchildren.

This year, a group of undergraduate and PhD students from UCL met with students from Tsinghua and Peking Universities for a second LEGO2NANO AFM workshop hosted at the Arts and Design Academy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, September 7-13, 2014. Over one week they worked together to construct the hardware for the instrument, write software to control the scanning movement of the AFM needle, and create a user interface. They also built a website to facilitate easy sharing of AFM images. Throughout the week, the students had the opportunity to interact with Dr. En-Te Hwu from Academia Sinica in Taipei, an expert in AFM design and the creator of the Cappuccino AFM.

As well as plenty of making, the workshop programme included inspiring talks by guest speakers on a range of topics from the maker movement and crowdfunding to education and nanotechnology; LEGO Serious Play activities organised by Tina Sorensen from the LEGO Foundation, a co-sponsor of the event; and visits to a local school, the microfabrication labs at Peking University, the Institute of Computing Technologies (which spun off Lenovo), Beijing’s electronics markets, and the Great Wall. The students also had a chance to meet CEO of LEGO and the Prime Minister of Denmark and talk to them about the LEGO2NANO project.

Picture: The Prime Minister of Denmark and CEO of LEGO meet the LEGO2NANO summer school participants and high-school pupils.

Work on the LEGO2NANO AFM continues at the Institute of Making and the Engineering Department at UCL. For more news and information follow the links below.

See LCN’s Joe Bailey talk about the LEGO2NANO AFM at Mozilla Festival 2014


Institute of Making LEGO2NANO blog