EPFL’s Laboratory for Bio- and Nano- Instrumentation (LBNI) is using an open-source method involving free workshops to help other labs build an advanced microscope that the LBNI developed.
After years of research and development, EPFL’s Laboratory for Bio- and Nano- Instrumentation (LBNI) has developed a powerful, ultra-high-performance atomic force microscope (AFM) that pushes what can physically be measured to its ultimate limit. It is a unique tool that gives the LBNI an undeniable edge over other laboratories. Yet Georg Fantner is making every effort to ensure that researchers around the world can get one too. “It would not be a sensible use of public money if we were the only ones who had it,” says Fantner. “By sparing other laboratories the need to design it from scratch, we can promote faster and more sustainable scientific progress. Sharing progress is also our mission – it’s a stipulation laid down by funding agencies when they give us grants – and we have the resources to do it.”
Professor Fantner is not the first to adopt an open-source approach to instruments and hardware in general. But by sharing a physical asset free of charge, he is breaking new ground. “Discoveries, data and software are easy to make widely available, but it’s much more complicated when the result of your research is an instrument. One option to make it available is to apply for a patent and commercialize the instrument, but that often doesn’t work out – mainly for non-scientific reasons,” says Fantner. “So, we decided to take our invention straight to other laboratories. It’s quicker, it reaches a broader audience, and we can get direct feedback from users and discover applications we wouldn’t otherwise have considered – the whole innovation cycle is accelerated. And bear in mind that in academia, we’re not working for money but for citations. This is an excellent way of raising your profile, building new collaborations and getting your work published.”
The usual way of sharing an instrument is to prepare a manual with a component list and assembly instructions. But the microscope developed by the LBNI is too complicated for that, and not all of its components can be purchased from catalogues. The LBNI’s solution is to organize week-long workshops showing people how to assemble the microscope. “We buy all the components, which we sell to the participants at cost, and we work with them to assemble and test the microscope, free of charge. We’re doing this because, unlike a piece of software, when you copy an instrument the result is never completely identical to the original. In contrast to most other open hardware projects, the main focus during the instrument design was ultimate performance rather than making it cheap to share. We’re trying to design the best possible device in the best possible way so that it can be shared.” Around a hundred laboratories around the world may be interested and could be accommodated through the workshops.
Interdisciplinary Centre for Electron Microscopy.
© Alain Herzog
With funds granted by the EPFL Open Science Fund – 150,000 francs – the LBNI will also be able to share an accessory for super-resolution optical microscopes. It consists of a sample illumination system that increases the resolution of the optical microscope. The concept of sharing this instrument is slightly different from the one used for the AFM, because it is aimed at upgrading a kind of microscope that is found in many labs around the world. The accessory, named openSIM, was specifically designed so that it can be 3D-printed and built easily by most researchers using a set of assembly instructions. “This open approach has also put us into contact with other laboratories in other schools,” says Mélanie Hannebelle, a PhD student who developed the microscope. “We’ve been able to test and improve it on the basis of the feedback we’ve received.” In the future, the goal is to reach hundreds of labs worldwide and build a vibrant open-hardware community.