Lego Microscope

Purdue University’s LEGO scanning probe microscope (SPM), on display in the lobby of Birck Nanotechnology Center, is a working model that reproduces the various functions of a research-level instrument. A probe at the tip of the microscope scans an object by touching it, generating a three-dimensional image that is displayed on a computer.

Built in 2003-2004 by a group of undergraduates at Purdue for use in science museums and middle schools throughout Indiana, the LEGO SPM was featured in a 2005 exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The majority of funds for the design and construction came from a NASA grant.

Research-quality scanning probe microscopes are used everywhere in the world to image objects with nanometer dimensions. Such features are way too small to be seen with conventional optical microscopes. The capabilities provided by scanning probe microscopes were one of the prime reasons that nanotechnology grew so rapidly in the late 1980s.

Many of the images displayed around the Birck lobby were acquired at Purdue with real SPMs.  A few of the images were even taken by the LEGO SPM.

Scientists are devising techniques to build nano devices piece by piece in ways that are very similar to the construction of complex LEGO landscapes. The LEGO scanning probe microscope is an ideal educational tool for this subject, effectively demonstrating how real lab instruments provide a window into the nano world.