Students From UCL And Chinese Universities Team Up For A Second LEGO2NANO Hackathon

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Students up for a second LEGO2NANO hackathon

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 Nano science in the best way possible: by doing their own experiments.


Many of the world’s most pressing problems involve processes at the Nano scale: how to battle new viruses, develop better batteries, and combat environmental pollutants. To image the Nano scale – 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 visualized. 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 crowd funding to education and nanotechnology; LEGO Serious Play activities organized by Tina Sorensen from the LEGO Foundation, a co-sponsor of the event; and visits to a local school, the micro fabrication 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.


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