A "lab-on-a-chip" kit that people can assemble on their own is being developed by University of Michigan engineers.
The simple 16-piece kit brings microfluidic devices to the scientific masses and may soon lead to a new generation of instant home tests for illnesses, food contaminants and toxic gases.
Mark Burns, a professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Chemical Engineering who developed the device with graduate student Minsoung Rhee claimed that the kit cuts the costs involved and the time it takes to make a microfluidic device from days to minutes.
"In a lot of fields, there can be significant scientific advances made using microfluidic devices and I think that has been hindered because it does take some degree of skill and equipment to make these devices. This new system is almost like Lego blocks. You don't need any fabrication skills to put them together," said Burns.
A lab-on-a-chip integrates multiple laboratory functions onto one chip just millimeters or centimeters in size. It is usually made of nano-scale pumps, chambers and channels etched into glass or metal. These microfluidic devices operate with miniscule drops of liquid and allow researchers to conduct quick, efficient experiments.
They can be engineered to mimic the human body more closely than the Petri dish does. They're useful in growing and testing cells, among other applications.
But Burns' system offers six-by-six millimeter blocks etched with different arrangements of grooves researchers can use to make a custom device by sticking them to a piece of glass.
Block designs include inlets, straight channels, Ts, Ys, pitchforks, crosses, 90-degree curves, chambers, connectors (imprinted with a block M for Michigan), zigzags, cell culture beds and various valves. The blocks can be used more than once.
Burns said that most of the microfluidic devices required by life scientists currently need a simple channel network design that can be easily accomplished with this new system. For showing the viability of his system, he successfully grew E. coli cells in one of these modular devices.
Burns believes microfluidics will go the way of computers, smaller and more personal as technology advances.