Lab-on-a-chip. No, it’s not the latest in the viscous app-off between Chili’s and TGIFriday’s. Instead, it’s a miniature laboratory printed onto a microchip, integrating several lab functions into a single location ranging in size from just millimeters to a few square centimeters. The application potential for these mini-labs ranges from analysis to diagnostics to cellomics and beyond. Now, with the possibilities provided through 3D printing, that potential is being expanded through open source, citizen science.
One of the primary obstacles that has hindered the progress of lab-on-a-chip technology has been the fragility of the devices themselves. The use of glass combined with the difficulties of producing the chips for on-demand use at a reasonable cost has worked to keep them out of the reach of all but a few. What 3D printing has done is allow the chips to be created nearly instantaneously and with a wider variety of functionalities than ever before.
Creating these chips with 3D printing means they can be produced with a wide variety of materials, depending upon the desired functionality. An Irish experimental physicist and electrical engineer who blogs under the pen name Muon Ray explained the interest held by 3D printed labs on chips:
“The fact that 3D printing can take place with a wide range of materials means that such chips can either be made to be chemically inert or chemically active, or perhaps more interestingly, inert in some regions with controlled activity in other regions of the circuit. Catalysts, either inorganic or organic, could be embedded within the very material the device is made of in a certain region to perform a certain chemical reaction. This controlled tailoring of microfluidics is a very important step in making small scale devices that can perform precise functions on chemical compounds sent in at one end and producing products at the other end.”
This means these chips would unlock the ability to replicate processes of either a biological or nano-technological nature in a really small space and under controlled conditions. Muon Ray details several labs-on-a-chip that he has created to showcase the variety of potential uses he developed in a short period of time. For example, using Meshlabs he created a chip ready to accept 4mm diameter barbed tubing connectors that would feed liquids into a channel created inside the chip. In addition, he created a chip with some of the properties of glassware by treating the interior with Silica nanoparticles.
Science works in two ways, through the steady accretion of data and through the singular leap of insight. Either of these paths are supported through the democratization of these mini-labs made more widely available through 3D printing technology. All of us are smarter than any of us, so who knows what this tiny device might lead us to.
In the meantime, I’m off to explore the possibilities inherent in guacamole-on-a-chip…in the name of science! How about you? Discuss further in the 3D Printed Lab on a Chip forum over at 3DPB.com.