Oct.4, 2013

The world's first low cost Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) has been developed in Beijing by a group of PhD students from University College London (UCL), Tsinghua University and Peking University - using LEGO and 3D printing.

Atomic force microscopes, first introduced into commerce in 1989, are very high-resolution type of scanning probe microscopy. They are capable of seeing objects only a millionth of a millimeter in size – far smaller than anything an optical microscope can observe. Commercial AFM typically cost $100,000 or more, but the newly designed low-cost version cost less than $500 to produce.

During the recent LEGO2NANO, the third in a series of China-UK Summer Schools held at Tsinghua University in Beijing, students, experienced makers and scientists are required to develop a new type of low-cost scanning probe microscope in one week.

The AFM consists of an arm with a sharp tip (probe) at its end that is used to scan the specimen surface. When the tip is brought into proximity of a sample surface, forces between the tip and the sample lead to a deflection of the arm. Typically, the deflection is measured using a laser spot reflected from the top surface of the cantilever into an array of photodiodes. By recording those changes, you can build a 3D image of nanoscale structures.

Tsinghua University, Peking University and University College London team up with the LEGO Foundation to invent, make and market their ideas. Their aim was to develop a functional nanoscope that can be built by high school students around the world, making use of only LEGO, Arduino microcontrollers, 3D-printed parts and consumer electronics.

It took just five days for the student team to demonstrate the scanning functionality of their AFM, earning them the award for Best Technical Design.

Most of the parts the team used are Lego blocks, 3D printed parts, and parts they sounced from electronics markets in Beijing's Zhongguancun technology hub. Their AFM is mounted on a metal plate, with housings and compartments built from Lego. The component holders and scanning stage are 3D printed to ensure a perfect fit.

The most expensive part is piezoelectric actuators which takes up almost half of the total cost. The piezoelectric actuators is controlled by Arduino processors, and when 10V is applied, the actuators move the scanning stage by just a micron.

The student teams involved in the event will now return to their universities with the goal of continuing their AFM developments and improving the nanoscale resolution of their designs.

"Low-cost scientific instrumentation is not just useful in high-schools, it can be a huge enabler for hospitals and clinics in developing countries, too" notes Gabriel Aeppli, director of the London Centre for Nanotechnology at UCL, a key contributor to the event.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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