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MIT designs portable 'lab on a chip'

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Testing soldiers to see if they have been exposed to biological or chemical weapons could soon be much faster and easier, thanks to MIT researchers who are helping to develop a tiny diagnostic device that could be carried into battle.

By tweaking the design of a tiny pump, researchers affiliated with MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies have taken a major step towards making an existing miniature "lab on a chip" fully portable, so the tiny device can perform hundreds of chemical experiments in any setting.

"In the same way that miniaturization led to a revolution in computing, the idea is that miniature laboratories of fluid being pumped from one channel to another, with reactions going on here and there, can revolutionize biology and chemistry," says Martin Bazant, associate professor of applied mathematics and leader of the research team.

Within the lab on a chip, biological fluids such as blood are pumped through channels about 10 microns, or millionths of a meter, wide. (A red blood cell is about 8 microns in diameter.) Each channel has its own pumps, which direct the fluids to certain areas of the chip so they can be tested for the presence of specific molecules.

Until now, scientists have been limited to two approaches to designing labs on a chip, neither of which offer portability. The first is to mechanically force fluid through microchannels, but this requires bulky external plumbing and scales poorly with miniaturization.

The second approach is capillary electro-osmosis, where flow is driven by an electric field across the chip. Current electro-osmotic pumps require more than 100 volts of electricity, but the MIT researchers have now developed a micropump which requires only battery power (a few volts) to achieve similar flow speeds and also provides a greater degree of flow control.

The key to boosting energy efficiency is altering the electric field in the channel, Bazant
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Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
thomson@mit.edu
617-258-5402
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
17-Oct-2006


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