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Nanoscopic Labs
August 29, 2012   
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Researchers from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow have developed a miniature matrix designed for use in labs-on-a-chip—tiny devices that integrate several laboratory functions on a single chip.

The use of a lab-on-a-chip guarantees enhanced research precision, efficiency and low energy use. The matrix developed by the Cracow researchers can be used to build miniature robots performing chemical analysis and dosing out medication.

Szczepan Zapotoczny, a researcher with a postdoctoral degree at the University’s Department of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, headed the research team.

“Many researchers are working to miniaturize large electronic devices such as spectrometers and chromatographs,” Zapotoczny said. “The goal is to obtain tiny devices to analyze very small samples anywhere, without special labs and large rooms, and only use small amounts of reagents and energy in the process.”

The researchers want to be able to analyze many substances. One example could be a complex blood test that only requires one drop of blood instead of a large volume for a string of different tests.

“Our chemical team has developed a matrix with nanoscopic tanks,” said Zapotoczny. “One square centimeter of the matrix comprises tens of billions of such nano-tanks.” Each tank is between 20 to 100 nanometers in size, which is equal to 1/1,000 of the diameter of a human hair (1 nm is one-millionth of a millimeter). Such tiny tanks can be packed densely on a small plate. They are etched in aluminum plates whose thickness is several tenths of a millimeter.

The technique used to etch the tanks, anodization, is a type of electrolysis in which a thin layer of aluminum oxide forms on a metal surface. Each tank is then fitted with a brush-like valve made of polymers. The polymers used in the matrix are highly sensitive to temperature.

“We can locally heat up and cool the valves and thus be able to open and close the tanks, prompting them to release substances they contain or keeping the substances locked inside,” said Zapotoczny. What is important, it is possible to open some valves on one plate while keeping others closed.

The temperature-responsive polymers change their properties in a narrow temperature range around 32°C. When the temperature drops, the polymers are like stretched chains and when the temperature rises again, their volume decreases as they shrink.

The matrix is designed for repeated use. The nano-tanks can be refilled with a range of substances from drugs to dyes to reagents used in analyses. Experiments performed by the researchers involved a fluorescent dye called calcein.

Labs-on-a-chip find application in medical tests, forensic chemistry and chemical analysis based on micro-traces. They will also help administer drugs. Attached to the skin like a patch, an array of nano-tanks can release therapeutic substances directly to the patient’s body.

The distinctive feature of the matrix is that the nano-tanks are packed much more densely than in other commercially available matrices. The temperature-responsive polymers serve as a relatively simple mechanism to open and close the nano-tanks.

The researchers are hoping to start joint projects with engineers interested in building lab-on-a-chip devices. “We are looking for researchers and engineers who need smaller tanks for their devices compared to what they have been using so far,” said Zapotoczny.

The research project headed by Zapotoczny is called “Matrices of Micro-Tanks with Temperature-Responsive Nano-Valves for the Controlled Release of Substances.” Other researchers involved in the project are Grzegorz Sułka, Ph.D., Leszek Zaraska, Ph.D., and Michał Szuwarzyński, M.Sc..

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