Building an open source Atomic Force Microscope

Alice Pyne, a PhD student at University College London, wants to provide schools with cheaper access to expensive imaging capabilities like the ones that allowed her team to capture the first in-water image of the DNA helix structure.

To do so, Pyne and her colleagues are developing a £300 (approximately $480) open source atomic force microscope (AFM) built around 3D-printed parts, Atmel-powered Arduino boards and LEGO bricks. It should be noted that an AFM isn’t exactly a traditional microscope, but rather, should be thought of as a high-resolution type of scanning probe microscopy (or 3D scanner) for imaging, measuring and manipulating matter at the nanoscale level.

“We want to enable children to see biological samples that they wouldn’t otherwise get to see,” Pyne told “What makes [research-grade] AFMs so expensive is that they do a lot of different things and have many different modes. We’re imaging very small areas and doing the simplest type of atomic force microscopy.”

According to Pyne, the prototype microscope currently sits on a metal base, with housings built from LEGO and various 3D component holders, the latter of which is designed to ensure a perfect fit between the LEGO and component. The scanning stage – inspired by research from Bristol University – is also 3D-printed.

“Piezo actuators, components that move when an electric field is applied (or vice versa), were the most expensive part, taking up about half of the entire microscope’s cost,” writes Wired’s Kadhim Shubber. “When 10V is applied, the Arduino-controlled actuators move the scanning stage by just a single micron, allowing for incredible scanning resolution.”

Interested in learning more about the open source AFM? Be sure to check out the original article on Wired.

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