Top team bub­bling with new ideas

The Herald Business - - Innovations -

IN THE ex­otic world of n a n o t e c h n o l o g y , re­searchers at MIT have cre­ated a way to use tiny bub­bles to mimic the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of a com­puter.

The team, based at MIT's Cen­ter for Bits and Atoms, re­ports that the bub­bles in their mi­croflu­idic de­vice can carry on-chip process con­trol in­for­ma­tion, just like the elec­tronic cir­cuits of a tra­di­tional mi­cro­pro­ces­sor, while also per­form­ing chem­i­cal re­ac­tions. Bub­ble logic merges chem­istry with com­pu­ta­tion, al­low­ing a dig­i­tal bit to carry a chem­i­cal pay­load. Un­til now, there was a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween the ma­te­ri­als in a re­ac­tion and the mech­a­nisms to con­trol them.

Mi­croflu­idics al­low sci­en­tists to cre­ate tiny chips where nano­liters of flu­ids flow from one part of the chip to an­other, un­der­go­ing con­trolled chem­i­cal re­ac­tions in dif­fer­ent parts of the chip and re­plac­ing the con­ven­tional test tubes and glass­ware used in chem­i­cal ex­per­i­ments for cen­turies.

The tech­nol­ogy has the po­ten­tial to rev­o­lu­tionise large-scale chem­i­cal anal­y­sis and syn­the­sis, en­vi­ron­men­tal and med­i­cal test­ing and in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion pro­cesses, but ap­pli­ca­tions out­side of the lab­o­ra­tory have been lim­ited so far by the ex­ter­nal con­trol sys­tems – valves and plumb­ing – re­quired for its op­er­a­tion.

Now, the MIT re­searchers are able to con­trol mi­croflu­idic chips through the in­ter­ac­tions of bub­bles flow­ing through mi­crochan­nels, elim­i­nat­ing the need for ex­ter­nal con­trols.

Con­trol­ling chem­i­cal re­ac­tions will prob­a­bly be a pri­mary ap­pli­ca­tion for the chips. The speed of op­er­a­tion is about 1,000 times slower than a typ­i­cal elec­tronic mi­cro­pro­ces­sor, but 100 times faster than the ex­ter­nal valves and con­trol sys­tems used in ex­ist­ing mi­croflu­idic chips.

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