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The Palm-sized Chemistry Lab that Costs Less than Your Morning Frappucino

Working with graduate student George Korir, Stanford bioengineer Manu Prakash has created a $5 hand-cranked chemistry lab that fits in the palm of your hand.

Similar to a music box, the device reads a scrolling punchcard where, instead of pricking metal tines to sound different tones, it yields precise amounts of designated liquid chemicals. It is an inexpensive, easily manufactured, programmable and energy self-sufficient tool applicable to a wide variety of scientific and educational industries.

Using an initial prototype built from actual music box parts, Prakash created a device that precisely mixes up to 15 different chemicals at once. The design starts with a tape or specifically patterned punchcard that is fed through a hand-cranked wheel that pulls the tape through. As the rotating pins corresponding to different chemicals hit the holes in the tape, specific amounts of chemicals are pushed through tiny channels within a a microfluidics chip. The punchcards that are fed through serve as a precise recipe to create many different chemical combinations with no spills, no electricity, and no expensive lab equipment.

Although the original prototype was made from the scrap parts from a music box, Prakash and Korir have made other replicas by printing their design with a 3D printer. This allows the entire kit to cost less than $5.

Prakash goal was to create an inexpensive, easily accessible, and energy self-sufficient device applicable to many different scientific fields. He soon realized though the significance of its simplicity in educational inspiration for children, especially those in developing countries where science education and tools to study their curiosities aren’t accessible.

Prakash explained the link between scientific toys and tools:

“The things that you make for kids to explore science are also exactly the kind of things that you need in the field because they need to be robust and they need to be highly versatile.”

Beyond simple kits to experiment with in science class or on some local pond water, the kit could be modified and used in many different ways, such as testing water for contaminants or pH, assessing soil chemistry, or even providing medical diagnostics. On top of that, each chip can be easily sterilized and ready for a new set of experiments.

After entering his unusual design in the Science Play and Research Kit Competition (SPARK) competition, Prakash won $50,000 to go towards transforming the device into a low-cost product available to the public. Prakash and Korir also hope to further develop the prototype into something that’s both stronger and more flexible so that other scientists can easily modify it to their specific needs.

Keara Wright

Aspiring creative author and astrophysicist, with degrees in Physics, Mathematics, and Psychology.

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