Field research is limited by location and availability of equipment. Taking samples back to a lab for testing is time consuming and costly, as is the equipment used to perform the tests. Miniaturized devices are portable versions of an entire instrumental platform and provide practical field solutions for environmental and medical testing in rural areas and for research in places as remote as outer space. These miniaturized total analytical systems contain valves and pumps to direct samples through analytical processes, such as sample preparation, separation, and detection.
Lisa Holland, an associate professor in the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry at West Virginia University, believes that smart nano gels overcome current barriers to lab-on-a-chip systems. She leads a team of researchers in developing the smart nano gels and adapting them to meet the needs of mobile labs.
“When you put a working valve in a manufactured chip with moving parts, both the cost and failure rate increase. Suppose there are no moving pieces in the device and the on-board fluid is the smart part then it’s as simple as filling, programming, running and refilling the material for each test,” said Holland.
Nano gel is a smart material that can be added to a substance without changing the chemical makeup of that product. The smart material forms a gel at temperatures above 24 degrees Celsius, but behaves like a fluid below that temperature. By using temperature change as a way to control the movement of the liquid in the tube, valves and moving parts are no longer needed for chemical separation.
These miniature nano gel labs make it relatively easy to do research in the field. If the researcher needs to close channels or trap a sample in a certain location, he or she would simply have to raise the temperature to create a fluid lock with the gel. When continuing the movement of the material, the researcher would then lower the temperature making the nano gel substance liquid.
“If you replace internal machinery with a smart material, then only external temperature control is required. We call this a non-mechanical device because of the lack of moving parts,” Holland explained. “Now the device has become incredibly unsophisticated, which means it is much easier to mass produce and fabricate and the failure rate decreases dramatically.”
This technology can radically improve research that relies on miniaturized lab-on-a-chip technology. It can revolutionize testing in rural areas in the medical and environmental fields, where the use of expensive, high-tech lab equipment is simply not an option. For example, if a creek’s wildlife is affected by a pollutant, instead of sending a sample to a lab and waiting for results to see what the contaminant is and where it is coming from, the water can be tested at various locations along the creek and results concluded within hours. Similarly, if blood tests are needed quickly, they can be done using this technology.
“You can do the same tests on the large instrument I have in my lab, but the investment is a minimum of $65,000just for the instrument. That’s not including the cost of someone who knows how to use the machine,” Holland explained. “The raw cost of this new material is exceedingly less, and it’s portable and very simple to use.”
Lab-on-a-chip technology is so portable and cost-effective; Holland and her team believe that advancing technology through miniaturized devices will transform everyday life. They also appreciate that microfluidic devices can change the K-12 classroom, and according to Holland “inspiring the next generation of innovators is also important”. Holland says that microscale separations and fluidics are ideal topics for the sixth, seventh and eighth grade science classroom, because at that age students begin the process of career identity.
“We used a lot of things that were already in the classroom to do the experiments,” Holland explained. “We outfitted a middle school lab for less than $2,000.”
“Results are easy to produce and understand, and more importantly the experiments are fun. The kids gain an interest in the technology and consider the possibility of a career in science,” Holland said. “It’s a way to bring very sophisticated science to schools, small hospitals and rural areas.”
Holland’s collaboration began in the Jefferson County school system. With the expertise of Professor Jeffrey Carver, assistant professor of science education curriculum and director of STEM Education Initiatives in the WVU College of Education and Human Services, Holland plans to share the experience with others. Teachers like Sharon Athey of Wildwood Middle School and Denise Gipson of Jefferson High School are working with Carver and Holland to develop and integrate microfluidic experiences into the curricula. The results of this partnership are shared with other educators and scientists through local and national presentations, and by submission to the National Science Digital Library so that it is freely available online.
Holland’s nano gel research is supported by a recent grant of $405,783 from the National Science Foundation. The T.R.E.K. program is supported by a National Science Foundation Research Infrastructure Improvement (NSF-RII) grant obtained by collaboration among Marshall University, West Virginia State University, West Virginia University and the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission Division of Science and Research.
For more information, contact Lisa Holland, at 304-293-0174 or Lisa.Holland@mail.wvu.edu