Top team bubbling with new ideas
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.