CSU students develop Lego microscope with potential to revolutionize microscopy education

Julia Trowbridge

With Legos and an iPhone, Colorado State University undergraduates have the potential to revolutionize the education of particles that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Students collaborated to build a microscope out of Legos, glass and an iPhone that can view nanoparticles, which are particles that are a thousand times smaller than a human hair. Because of this microscope, CSU is one of the fifteen regional finalists in the Americas for the Edmund Optics Educational Award, with the possibility of winning $10,000 in optical technology from Edmund Optics.

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Edmund Optics, a global organization that supports scientific fields of study through optical technology like expensive microscopes, has presented an award to support outstanding optics programs in STEM related fields.

Assistant professor Justin Sambur applied for the award because of his undergraduate students’ work on creating an inexpensive microscope out of minimal materials, making this technology available to more students.

“Most importantly, the activity exposes young students to optics concepts and optical components, and ultimately provides them with a rewarding experience of building a fully-functional optical microscope for nanoparticle imaging,” wrote Sambur in the application for the award. “Our optics activity will reach a broad audience (high school and undergraduate students) because it is very inexpensive compared to research-grade optical and electron microscopes.”

Normally, microscopes that can view these nanoparticles costs around $10,000. The Lego microscope can be built for around $200.

Amy Simpson, left, and Travis Varra, right
Amy Simpson, the undergraduate researcher who handled the image processing, and Travis Varra, who built the Lego microscope, with their respective parts of the project. (Julia Trowbridge | Collegian)

The idea for the microscope was presented by Sambur in Fall 2016 to Travis Varra, a junior studying chemistry. 

“I was told to come up with an inverted version of a research-grade microscope,” Varra said. “Then, I used my Legos from when I was a kid (to build it). I didn’t have any directions and came up with the design on my own.”

The microscope has a band-pass filter, which is a piece of glass that filters in a specific wavelength of light. With this filter, the smartphone captures the nanoparticles that have a red color while the light put into the microscope is green, which allows the nanoparticles to be seen instead of washed out by all of the green light.

“The goal is to make (a research grade microscope) that is easily accessible to those who don’t have the resources,” said Amy Simpson, a senior studying chemistry and a researcher in Sambur’s lab.

While Varra built the microscope, Simpson was instrumental in processing the images captured by the iPhone, according to Sambur. These images needed to be processed and analyzed, and eventually compared to the $20,000 microscope in CSU’s facilities.

Lego microscope with light shining in contraption
The Lego microscope, built by undergraduate researcher Travis Varra. This microscope has the capability to allow high school and undergraduate students to view particles a thousand times smaller than a human hair. The microscope cost around $200 to make. (Julia Trowbridge | Collegian)

“This microscope is great for optics and education,” Sambur said. “For students, it’s hands on. They can build a microscope and image a single nanoparticle, which is not easily doable without expensive imaging capabilities.”

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The goal of this project is to publish the design in the Journal for Chemical Education, an American Chemical Society journal meant for sharing educational tools in chemistry. If the Sambur lab receives a prize from the Edmund Optics Educational Award, the prize will be spent on furthering the project and towards imaging capabilities for CSU’s research labs.

With this lego microscope, the Sambur lab also hopes to create an educational lab activity that allows high school and undergraduate students to image nanoparticles and become interested in the field of microscopy and more effectively show young scientists objects that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Collegian news reporter Julia Trowbridge can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @chapin_jules.