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These Microfluidic Lego Are Like Building Blocks For Complex Science

Researchers used Lego to make microfluidic experiments as easy as playing with toys.

These Microfluidic Lego Are Like Building Blocks For Complex Science
[Images: Kevin Vittayarukskul/Abraham Phillip Lee via 3DPI]

Microfluidics is a big word but a relatively simple idea. It’s really just about dropping liquid into very tiny tubes–tubes the width of several human hairs–to do things including testing a blood sample for HIV, more efficiently cooling the microprocessor inside your computer, and even driving the locomotion of a robot.

Microfluidics generally requires very specialized production processes. But now, a team of researchers from the University of California, Irvine, want to make the field as accessible to students and scientists as common Lego bricks. In a recent paper published in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, the team demonstrated a technique to 3D print microfluidic molds, each modeled directly on the shape of 2×2 Lego bricks. Using this method, featured on 3D Printing Industry, each microfluidic Lego could actually be snapped onto a stock Lego baseplate to create entire microfluidic networks.

Even though these microfluid tubes are but 500 μm (or microns) wide, they are able to align side by side continuously without leaking. How is that possible? No doubt, the molds researchers are creating are only as good as the 3D printers they are using. However, Lego itself is known to be engineered with incredibly low tolerances (or the margin of dimensional error in the physical product). The company claims its products are produced with tolerances of only 10 μm.

So what’s next for Lego microfluidics? Truth be told, microfluidics researchers have been successfully exploring similar modular systems for over a decade. Instead, the researchers admit that their inspiration was mostly educational. They hope to create an open library of microfluidic models for anyone to print, produce, and build with on their own–a move they hope will spur more interest from students in microfluidics in general.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.