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Lego bricks, upcycled iPhone lenses used in new low-cost, high-res microscope

Full instructions given away for free, to 'nurture natural curiosity'

A trio of boffins at the Georg August University Göttingen and Münster University have put together a low-cost yet high-resolution microscope for educational users – using smartphone parts and Lego bricks.

"An understanding of science is crucial for decision-making and brings many benefits in everyday life, such as problem-solving and creativity," said Timo Betz, professor at the University of Göttingen and co-author of the paper detailing the project. “Yet we find that many people, even politicians, feel excluded or do not have the opportunities to engage in scientific or critical thinking.

"We wanted to find a way to nurture natural curiosity, help people grasp fundamental principles and see the potential of science."

A clear barrier to that is price: lab equipment isn't the cheapest, and once you move away from literal toys the cost of a high-resolution microscope puts it beyond the impulse purchase point for a large number of students.

The solution? Don't move away from toys, but toward them, using Lego bricks as the basis for a low-cost yet surprisingly high-quality modular microscope suitable for educational use in the field of biophysics.

As well as the Lego bricks, which form the bulk of the build, the project needed high-quality optical lenses. Two of these – a pair of acrylic ocular lenses combined with transparent tape into a single unit, and a glass low-magnification objective – are readily available. The high-magnification objective comes from somewhere else: recycled smartphones.

"Here we used the plastic lens of a iPhone 5 camera module," the team wrote of the high-magnification lens. "At the time of writing you can get these modules for about €2-4 [around £1.70-3.40/$2.40-4.80] via eBay. It's a bit of a shame, as we remove all the fancy electronics, but we only need the lens."

The scientists have also provided what they call the "explorer kit", a set of guided instructions which walk the reader through assembling the microscope while also teaching the fundamentals of microscopy.

The guide is available in English, German, Dutch, and Spanish, with contributions for additional languages welcomed.

"We hope that this modular microscope will be used in classrooms and homes all over the world to excite and inspire children about science," Betz concluded. "We have shown that scientific research does not need to be separate from everyday life. It can be enlightening, educational and fun!"

Technical information about the development of the microscope and its capabilities are available in a paper published in The Biophysicist under open-access terms.

The instructions themselves, meanwhile, can be found on GitHub under a permissive Creative Commons licence. ®

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