New ‘lab-on-a-chip’ costs one cent to make with regular inkjet printer

7 Feb 2017

Rahim Esfandyarpour with the lab-on-a-chip device. Image: Zahra Koochak/Stanford University

Researchers have created a ‘lab-on-a-chip’ device that costs just one cent to make using a regular inkjet printer.

Advances in micropower capabilities and the sensors powered by it have created a field of engineering that pushes the limits of what can be accomplished on smaller and smaller technology.

In the latest breakthrough, researchers from Stanford University Medical Center have managed to refine many medical diagnostic tools to the point that they can create an entire lab at a cost of just one US cent.

In a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team led by Rahim Esfandyarpour detailed a two-part system chip.

Using a combination of microfluidics, electronics and inkjet printing technology, the first part of the chip contains a clear silicone microfluidic chamber for housing cells and a reusable electronic strip.

The second part is a regular inkjet printer that can be used to print the electronic strip onto a flexible sheet of polyester, using commercially available conductive nanoparticle ink.

Among its multiple functions, the chip allows users to analyse different cell types without using fluorescent or magnetic labels typically required to track cells.

Chip close up

Comparison shot between a US one cent coin and the new chip. Image: Zahra Koochak/Shutterstock

Exponentially cheaper than existing tech

This greatly improves precision and cuts lengthy labelling processes. It can also help to capture single cells from isolate rare cells, all the while being exponentially cheaper than a machine that does each of these functions.

The team said that a stand-alone flow cytomer machine to sort and count cells would cost as much as $100,000, not including any operational costs.

The goal of the device is to democratise the medical diagnostic technology in developing countries that would otherwise have very limited access to technology, enabling them to sequence tumour DNA, for example.

It also has the potential to help diagnose cancers by detecting tumour cells that circulate in the bloodstream.

The technology behind the miniature diagnostic tool eliminates the need for equally expensive, clean room facilities and a number of trained medical professionals, as a chip can be produced in just 20 minutes.

“Enabling early detection of diseases is one of the greatest opportunities we have for developing effective treatments,” Esfandyarpour said. “Maybe $1 in the US doesn’t count [for] that much, but somewhere in the developing world, it’s a lot of money.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic