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Lego figure and bricks

Coldest-ever Lego could inspire thermal insulators

Image credit: Lancaster University

Scientists at the University of Lancaster have experimented with cooling Lego bricks to near absolute zero, and found that they act as exceptional thermal insulators.

Lancaster University is home to the world’s most effective dilution refrigerator. Dilution refrigerators reach cryogenic temperatures using a mix of He-3 and He-4 (helium) isotopes rather than conventional heat pumps, and have been crucial to much of modern experimental physics, including the first stages of development of quantum computers (which require extremely cold temperatures to minimise the movement of particles). This particular machine can reach 0.0016°C above absolute zero; 2,000 times colder than deep space.

A group of low-temperature physicists based at the university decided to use the machine to cool Lego down to record-breaking temperatures, inserting a Lego figure and four bricks in the refrigerator.

The experiment produced unexpected results; they found that the bricks – which are made from Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) and have a recognisable partially-hollowed-out structure – provided better thermal isolation than many well-known bulk insulator materials, while also maintaining solid support.

The researchers commented in their Scientific Reports paper that “Lego bricks represent a cheap and superlative alternative to materials such as Macor [a glass-ceramic] or Vespel [a plastic]”.

“Our results are significant because we found that the clamping arrangement between the Lego blocks causes the Lego structures to behave as an extremely good thermal insulator at cryogenic temperatures,” said Dr Dmitry Zmeev, who led the research. “This is very desirable for construction materials used for the design of future scientific equipment like dilution refrigerators.”

The researchers wrote that the adoption of ABS structures similar to Lego bricks could allow for future thermal insulators to be produced at reduced cost, such as via 3D printing. This could be an important step towards the development of new dilution refrigerators and the nascent technologies associated with them, such as quantum computers.

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