UBC engineers develop cheap, hand-held biochemistry lab

Novel ink-and-paper-based lab-on-a-chip turns smartphone into portable biohazard and blood work-up analyzer.

0 January 21, 2015
by Design Engineering staff

UBC’s smartphone lab prototype with, from left, Engineering Instructor Ali Ahmadi, PhD Candidate Mohamed Yafia Salem, Assoc. Prof. Homayoun Najjaran, and mechanical engineering student Jessica Van Brummelen.

UBC’s smartphone lab prototype with, from left, Engineering Instructor Ali Ahmadi, PhD Candidate Mohamed Yafia Salem, Assoc. Prof. Homayoun Najjaran, and mechanical engineering student Jessica Van Brummelen.

Engineers at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus have developed a hand-sized biochemistry laboratory capable of detecting infectious diseases in microscopic drops of blood or the presence of chemical weapons and other biohazards.

Housed in a 3D printed enclosure, the small device integrates with a common smartphone to form an inexpensive and portable testing device that could be used in remote or resource-limited areas.

“It’s of great interest for use in places that do not have infrastructure for accurate testing in a timely fashion,” says UBC professor, Homayoun Najjaran, founder and principal investigator of the Advanced Control and Intelligent Systems (ACIS) Lab. “To make it really valuable, you want to be able to put the laboratory at the point of care, and this system will do just that.”

The system uses several technologies developed by the (ACIS) lab. Foremost among them is a digital microfluidic processor (i.e. lab-on-a-chip) that precisely controls electrical fields to move sample droplets in and around a chip.

Typically, such chips are fabricated on glass wafers and cost $5 apiece. In contrast, the UBC team’s lab-on-a-chip — developed in consultation with UBC professor of printmaking Briar Craig — uses conductive ink screen-printed onto paper. This allows several yards of the paper chips to be printed quickly and thereby reduces the price per chip. According to Najjaran, hundreds of the paper chips can be manufactured for $5. In total, he says the cost of the entire laboratory could be less than $100, potentially.

In addition to the chip, Najjaran’s engineering team also developed the lab’s electronics. A rechargeable 3.7-volt battery supplies enough power to manipulate the droplets of sample fluid. The device is monitored and controlled via Bluetooth wireless commands from a smartphone.

Presently, the device is simply a working prototype but researchers are seeking an industry partner so they can refine the technology for commercialization. In addition, the team is working with colleagues at UBC, McGill University and other institutions — including Canada’s National Design Network — to develop applications for the device.

Funding was provided by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). The research also used UBC Okanagan’s Applied Micro- and Nanosystems Facility, a laboratory supported by Western Economic Diversification Canada.
www.ubc.ca


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