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Research made easy with labs on chips

To simplify the complicated process of doing analysis in a conventional laboratory, Thailand's National Nanotechnology Centre is conducting a new research project to develop a lab on a chip, by downsizing the entire analysis process into a silicon chip and allowing people to conduct lab tests easily, and also much faster.

Research made easy with labs on chips

The centre is now working with the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) from Japan to conduct co-research for the project.

Nanotec's research assistant Yongyuth Wanna said that the development was initially targeted at building a chip to help analyse the sucrose level in sugarcane.

Sugarcane is a strong contributor to the country's economy and it's the key raw material to produce sugar, a major export product. Each year, Thailand exports around four million tonnes of sugar, worth about Bt29 billion.

Yongyuth said measuring the sucrose level in sugarcane was therefore necessary, as it would allow farmers to know the right time to gather their crop from the field and sell it at a higher price.

Yongyuth said the team planned to downsize the sucrose analysis method into a chip so that it would be easier for farmers and sugar manufacturing plants to test the sucrose level in just a few minutes.

Normally, measuring the sucrose level in sugarcane or sugar syrup requires superior technological equipment like high performance liquid chromatography or near infrared analysis. Although such equipment gives highly accurate results, it still requires expertise to operate and is expensive.

Lab on a chip, therefore, comes as an answer. Yongyuth said if the development succeeded, farmers and sugar manufacturers would have a system that could easily measure sucrose levels with high accuracy and more importantly, at a lower cost.

"Everything will be done on a small scale; just tiny samples and fewer substances for analysis are required while the results will come out much faster," Yongyuth said.

To develop this "lab on a chip", the team will use Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS), a technology to combine computers with tiny mechanical devices such as sensors, valves and actuators, to build a tiny analysis process on a microprocessor.

He added that since the team from Japan had expertise in MEMS technology, it would help transfer knowledge for the development.

The team will build what they called a micro-fluidic system, a key process on the chip to allow samples of liquids like sugar syrup to flow through a step-by-step analysis process and eventually give a result.

To measure the sucrose level, users will have to just drop a tiny bit of sugar syrup on the chip, then the liquid will flow through a micro-channel and pass through the analysis process.

The chip, Yongyuth said, would be linked with a display monitor so farmers could see the sucrose level result immediately.

"As the testing lab is designed just on the chip, farmers can also take it anywhere, or even into the field to conduct an analysis," he added.

The project started three months ago and the team is now making a feasibility study.

Yongyuth said that this development was expected to be the foundation to develop a lab on a chip that could be used as a diagnosis kit for diseases.

Pongpen Sutharoj

The Nation

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