PhD student remakes high-tech lab equipment from Lego, with the same results

Who needs an expensive piece of technology when you have Lego? 

Austrian physics PhD student Richard Moser shirked a high tech tensometer, worth $50,000, to make his own piece of equipment out of Lego. 

Richard Moser, Austrian soft matter physicist 
with his toy brick Tensile Tester.
Richard Moser, Austrian soft matter physicist with his toy brick Tensile Tester. Photo: Johannes Kepler University, Linz.

The device measures the elasticity of materials with the same accuracy as its full-price counterparts. And, according to Moser's professor, it's surprisingly easy to build.

The tensometer was designed to assist the creation of wearable electronics, such as MP3 players embedded in clothing or foldable tablets, in which testing the stretchability of electronic components is paramount. 

Austrian PhD student Richard Moser introduced Lego to his laboratory.
Austrian PhD student Richard Moser introduced Lego to his laboratory.  Photo: JKU University

"We wanted to measure some mechanical properties of rubber samples but had no machine available," Mr Moser said. "Buying one was not an option, so we asked ourselves if it would be possible to construct such a device using Lego Technic parts."

Mr Moser said scientists in his soft matter physics lab at Johannes Kepler University, Linz, frequently use Lego to make frames and holders for experiments. 


"I have loved Lego blocks since the day I was smart enough to not swallow them, so I started building."

The entire unit cost 700 Euro ($A1085) to build and was developed from the pieces of a Lego Mindstorms set, a Lego Excavator set and off-the-shelf parts. Mr Moser has made the Toy Brick Tensile Tester design open-source, entirely available for free online. 

Mr Moser's report on the Lego tensometer stated there was an imperative in engineering to find low-cost construction materials.

"Laboratory equipment in particular is expensive and usually requires large investments - a serious problem in current research with limited financial resources." 

"Many projects require specialised tools, such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and mills, that may not be readily available to everyone - toy bricks, however, are."

The study compared the measurements of the Toy Brick Tensile Tester to a laboratory grade BOSE Tensometer, and found the results "virtually indistinguishable". 

"Toy bricks are not only for children," the study states. "In the hands of engineers, they become a powerful laboratory tool."

The Lego measuring device comes in the wake of a new trend in STEM Harvard Professor George Whitesides coined 'The Frugal Way'. Over the past five years elite universities have been devising cheap ways to bring technologies to more people. 

In 2014 Stanford University biophysicist, Manu Prakash developed a $1 paper microscope that has been used in classrooms and workspaces all over the world. MIT's 'Little Devices Lab' has crafted asthma puffers from bicycle pumps and a steriliser that uses chocolate wrappers to capture heat.

Cambridge researchers have also used Lego blocks to create a robot crane that assists in the creation of synthetic bone. 

Mr Moser said toy bricks are a perfect material for laboratory prototypes because they are readily available, quick and intuitive to assemble.

"And a setup that is no longer needed can be torn apart, and something new can be constructed," he said.