What’s the big idea?

In broad terms lego2nano is a project aiming to develop open source designs and kits to build nanoscale sensing equipment. These kits would be targeted at school children and would be intended to bring nanoscience into classrooms. For more background, visit our About page.

We want to bring nanoscience into the classroom as we think nanoscience is really interesting and hope that students would agree with us. It isn’t just that the things that we look at are small – nano-objects have entirely different properties to their macroscopic counterparts. For instance on a macroscopic scale gold is an inert un-reactive metal. This is why we use it for jewelry as it will not oxidise and so unlike other metals its surface stays shiny.

Gold - Macro from: www.pse-mendelejew.de
from: http://www.pse-mendelejew.de

In contrast gold nanoparticles are used as catalysts because of their ability to cause chemical reactions. On a nanoscale the world isn’t just smaller – it is qualitatively different. We find these kinds of properties really interesting and think that the challenges associated with probing and engineering the world at these length scales are some of the most interesting in science today.

Gold - nano, From: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zeissmicro/
From: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zeissmicro/

We hope that the interesting science will be enough to capture the imagination of school children but aim to ensure their engagement by bringing state of the art kits to schools. Our aim with these kits is to strike a balance between a clear set of instructions and an open environment with options for whoever is making the kit. A certain amount of instruction is going to be necessary if we want the kits to result in state of the art nano-sensing equipment.

However we hope that by making the kits transparent and modular we can encourage teams to take ownership of their device. If they want to put it together in a slightly different way then great. If they have a wicked idea about a new base to improve vibration cancellation then go for it. We hope that this will help whoever uses the kit to engage with the engineering and computational challenges associated with nanoscience. The ethos of providing kits not equipment has been drawn from the lego ethos where there are kits and designs but ultimately whoever is putting everything together chooses how they do it. By providing kits which school children make, we hope to really get them engaged with the project, introduce them to cutting edge science which they find really interesting and encourage them to pursue science further in life.

Lego AFM - from LEGO2NANO 2013
from LEGO2NANO 2013

Lego2Nano is also about more than getting school children interested in science. We want to start a citizen science program which will ultimately lead to useful scientific data being gathered by non-specialists using homemade nano-sensing equipment. This seems like a lofty goal but we think that precisely because of the nature of nanoscience it is not implausible to believe that such data could be generated. Don’t believe us? Here is our case for as to why such experiments could be useful:

The nanoscale world is vast. This seems like something of a contradiction in terms but what we are trying to get at here can be explained well going back to the example of gold. On a macroscopic scale gold is gold is gold. It can be different shapes and sizes but essentially it is just a shiny metal with good electrical properties and a high resale value. When you look at nanostructured gold the story is different. Already we have mentioned how nanoparticles can be used as catalysts to cause chemical reactions whereas macroscopic gold is almost entirely inert. Thin films of gold change colour depending on their thickness. The plasmonic properties of gold depends on the size of the gold. Surface plasmons in nanoparticles are a function of size and shape of nanoparticles meaning that it is possible to tailor the energy of excitations in the gold by changing its shape and size in contrast to the single energy of a bulk gold plasmon. A good video explaining all this can be found here. This is just one material but its physical properties can change dramatically by altering its shape and size on the nanoscale. All these different material properties mean that gold has all sorts of applications which is why gold is used across nanotechnology with applications from cancer treatment to catalysis.

The nanoscale world is vast as there are so many materials, the way that those materials are nanostructured will fundamentally change the material properties. Different material properties mean that there loads of possible applications. And that is just looking at materials engineering.

Nanoscience has also revolutionised cell biology and molecular biology, providing us with the tools to observe the biological world with unprecedented detail. Single molecule studies allow the actions and behaviours of individual biological entities to be observed or manipulated, providing a complimentary story to that of traditional experiments where the result is the average of many molecules. For example, the structure of DNA has been resolved using different techniques, including X-ray crystallography, which averages many thousands of strands of DNA to provide us with the standard double helix structure we all know so well. However, at the single molecule level, the structure of DNA is more flexible to allow for the binding of proteins which are involved in different cellular processes. In this way nanoscience has allowed us to probe into the variable structures of DNA with nanometer resolution, giving us a more enriched view of the way DNA actually exists in nature and this understanding can be harnessed to perform useful technological tasks such as being the basis of 3D nanoscale printing.

In such a vast world how can professional scientists hope to look at everything? And even when they do look at something maybe it only becomes interesting after many similar systems have been observed and there is large amounts of data so that the statistics can be considered. Often this means that scientists have to be very selective about what they look at as there are finite man hours and finite hours of microscope time.

From LEGO2NANO 2014
From LEGO2NANO 2014

A large citizen science program where lots of things are looked at could generate huge amounts of data. Maybe taken individually some (or most) of this data is “boring”. Unfortunately often in science there is lots of data generated which is all pretty unexciting before anything exciting emerges. However there is so much stuff that hasn’t been looked at thoroughly that maybe there are really exciting discoveries waiting to be made. Maybe it isn’t going to be a single observation that generates the useful output but rather repeated measurements made across the world at a number of times which can be agglomerated and compared with one another revealing long term trends and useful statistics that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. For example using an AFM it would be possible to generate some useful statistics on pollution looking at the shape and size of particulates in the air. A spatially and temporally resolved data set on particulate size, shape and density could prove a really useful tool in combating pollution. Basically we don’t really know what data we can hope to achieve with widespread, easy to access, cheap AFMs but we think that there is a decent chance that whatever comes out of such a project has the potential to be really interesting.

A final facet of the Lego2Nano project will revolve around what we do with any data that we generate. We want Lego2Nano to be about sharing and collaboration. As such we want to develop a platform where data that is generated using these AFM kits can be easily categorized and shared. This kind of data sharing will hopefully ensure that any data generated by this project will be put to the best use possible as anyone who wants to try to analyze it can!

Hopefully all this has explained a bit about the project. More updates will follow shortly but any questions can be posted in the comments below and we will try to get back to you!

Developing low-cost open-source science tools for schools.