It's easy to take Lego at face value and see it as just a pretty cool toy. Even Lego Mindstorm NXT kits, which are good for making robotic gadgets, can be derided as just Arduino for kids. Fortunately, a group of scientists have found an excellent use for Lego Mindstorms within research.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge in England are currently looking for a way to replace typical bone implants--usually made of steel and titanium--with something more realistic. While the team, headed by PhD Supervisor Michelle Oyen, created almost identical copies of different bones. The process involves manually dipping the artificial bone sample in beakers of calcium, protein, water. The samples need to be dipped and moved every minute for an hour, which can be a time-consuming process for a lab worker.
What makes the lab stand out is how it tries to use inexpensive, household objects to aid in testing, and this is where a few Lego Mindstorms kits came in. Instead of dipping by hand, the researchers built crane-like Lego robots that can automate the process, which allows the researchers to use their free hands to work on other aspects of the projects.
PhD student Daniel Strange explained the significance of Lego in his project to GeekTech:
"The Lego Mindstorms were crucial in allowing us to automate the process; originally I had to keep my eyes glued to a stopwach and every minute move a sample from one beaker to the next--for an hour. The Lego Mindstorms move the samples for us, over and over, more precisely and more accurately than what I could do by hand. Because the process has been automated, we can run it for much longer and build samples up over the course of days rather than a single hour. The bone-like material is large enough that you can remove it from the underlying surface and hold it in your hand and test it mechanically - it's stiff and strong!"
Of course, there is lab equipment out there that can do the same job, but not only is it more expensive than Mindstorm kits, but it also usually has limited uses. On the other hand, the researchers can build and rebuild Lego sets as needed to suit various different projects. As Daniel explains, Mindstorms kits make for good prototypes, and can be altered throughout the project to suit the team's needs:
"If something is not quite right you can quickly take that bit apart and put it together in a new way. When Michelle bought me the first mindstorms kit, it only took me a day to build a fully working robotic crane. The crane has gone through several revisions since then as other students have tinkered with the design."
The lab currently owns four of the kits: Two are for the bone replacement project and the other two are for other projects and tasks around the department (such as mixing substances), or as prototypes of equipment to be used in later research projects.
So, even scientists love Lego. Oh, and those other household objects the university labs uses? Think foodstuffs like gelatin, vinegar, and quail eggs; along with kitchen tools such as ice cube trays, coffee filters, tea strainers, and pizza cutters. They also use baby oil, glycerol, dishwashing soap, chicken wire, and various balls.
Check out the video below, where Daniel and his supervisor Michelle explain the project and how useful Lego can be in research:
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