Lego is excellent. The building blocks — building bricks, sorry — of many a well-spent, engineering-minded youth, Lego pieces can build anything from a Lego Millennium Falcon to a Lego women-in-space set. And, if you happen to be engineering researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, those bricks can build a working, high-tech science lab, one that might even work better than existing approaches.
A paper in Wednesday’s issue of the journal Lab on a Chip, explains how the team at MIT used what they refer to as “interlocking injection-molded blocks” — again, seriously, it’s bricks — to build a miniature lab that can manipulate the flow of liquids at milliliter scales.
This is known as microfluidics, and more typically mechanical engineers build such tiny labs on flat, two-dimensional chips. But the fact that Lego bricks have the same size and specifications all over the world means they have legitimate potential as a building material for microfluidics experiments. The Lego lab that the team built was able to mix, store, pump, and sort minute amounts of fluids.
Crucially, the Lego design took advantage of one of the things people love most about them, which is that they can be snapped apart and reassembled. Instead of existing microfluidic chips, which must be painstakingly assembled to include the tools to complete all conceivable tasks on one small device, a Lego-based setup can be modular, with different arrangements used to complete different tasks.
In that sense, the Lego mini-lab is more than just a curiosity: It’s a whole new way of thinking about some of the most finicky experimental science that researchers have to do. And instead of designing some new interlocking block that just happened to be the same general dimensions as your basic Lego bricks, the researchers elected to use what was already plentifully available.
The Lego bricks themselves weren’t exactly like those you would get in a building set, at least not once the team was done altering them. They used special tools to cut incredibly fine channels into different bricks so the fluids could flow through them. The team also added tiny O-rings to seal the microns-wide gaps between bricks.
The researchers do point out there are a few drawbacks to using Lego bricks, particularly the fact that its plastic material makes it unable to handle certain fluids. A polymer-based equivalent would open up a wider variety of possible applications, which makes this new approach all the more promising — as long as we all agree to keep calling whatever blocks they use Lego, that is.