Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

LEGO Toy Helps Researchers Learn What Happens on Nanoscale

27.08.2009
Johns Hopkins engineers are using a popular children’s toy to visualize the behavior of particles, cells and molecules in environments too small to see with the naked eye. These researchers are arranging little LEGO pieces shaped like pegs to re-create microscopic activity taking place inside lab-on-a-chip devices at a scale they can more easily observe.

These lab-on-a-chip devices, also known as microfluidic arrays, are commonly used to sort tiny samples by size, shape or composition, but the minuscule forces at work at such a small magnitude are difficult to measure. To solve this small problem, the Johns Hopkins engineers decided to think big.

Led by Joelle Frechette and German Drazer, both assistant professors of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the university’s Whiting School of Engineering, the team used beads just a few millimeters in diameter, an aquarium filled with goopy glycerol and the LEGO pieces arranged on a LEGO board to unlock mysteries occurring at the micro- or nanoscale level. Their observations could offer clues on how to improve the design and fabrication of lab-on-a-chip technology. Their study concerning this technique was published in the Aug. 14 issue of Physical Review Letters.

The idea for this project comes from the concept of “dimensional analysis,” in which a process is studied at a different size and time scale while keeping the governing principles the same.

“Microfluidic arrays are like miniature chemical plants,” Frechette says. “One of the key components of these devices is the ability to separate one type of constituent from another. We investigated a microfluidic separation method that we suspected would remain the same when you scale it up from micrometers or nanometers to something as large as the size of billiard balls.”

With this goal in mind, Frechette and Drazer constructed an array using cylindrical LEGO pegs stacked two high and arranged in rows and columns on a LEGO board to create a lattice of obstacles. The board was attached to a Plexiglas sheet to improve its stiffness and pressed up against one wall of a Plexiglas tank filled with glycerol. Stainless steel balls of three different sizes, as well as plastic balls, were manually released from the top of the array; their paths to the bottom were tracked and timed with a camera.

The entire setup, Drazer said, cost a few hundred dollars and could easily be replicated as a science fair experiment.

Graduate students Manuel Balvin and Tara Iracki, and undergraduate Eunkyung Sohn, all from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, performed multiple trials using each type of bead. They progressively rotated the board, increasing the relative angle between gravity and the columns of the array (that is, altering the forcing angle). In doing so, they saw that the large particles did not move through the array in a diffuse or random manner as their small counterparts usually did in a microfluidic array. Instead, their paths were deterministic, meaning that they could be predicted with precision, Drazer said.

The researchers also noticed that the path followed by the balls was periodic once the balls were in motion and coincided with the direction of the lattice. As the forcing angle increased, some of the balls tended to shift over one, two, three or as many as four pegs before continuing their vertical fall.

“Our experiment shows that if you know one single parameter—a measure of the asymmetry in the motion of a particle around a single obstacle—you can predict the path that particles will follow in a microfluidic array at any forcing angle, simply by doing geometry.” Drazer said.

The fact that the balls moved in the same direction inside the array for different forcing angles is referred to as phase locking. If the array were to be scaled down to micro- or nanosize, the researchers said they would expect these phenomena to still be present and even increase depending on the factors such as the unavoidable irregularities of particle size or surface roughness.

“There are forces present between a particle and an obstacle when they get really close to each other which are present whether the system is at the micro- or nanoscale or as large as the LEGO board,” Frechette said. “In this separation method, the periodic arrangement of the obstacles allows the small effect of these forces to accumulate, and amplify, which we suspect is the mechanism for particle separation.”

This principle could be applied to the design of micro- or nanofluidic arrays, she added, so that they could be fabricated to “sort particles that had a different roughness, different charge or different size. They should follow a different path in an array and could be collected separately.”

Phase locking is likely to become less important, Drazer cautioned, as the number of particles in solution becomes more concentrated. “Next,” he said, “we have to look at how concentrated your suspension can be before this principle is destroyed by particle-particle interactions.”

Both Drazer and Frechette are affiliated faculty members of Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology. The research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund.

Journal article reference: “Directional locking and the role of irreversible interactions in deterministic hydrodynamics separations in microfluidic devices” Manuel Balvin, Eunkyung Sohn, Tara Iracki, German Drazer, and Joelle Frechette, Phys. Rev. Lett. 103, 078301 (2009).

Photos available; Contact Mary Spiro.
Related links:
German Drazer’s Lab website: http://microfluidics.jhu.edu/Home
Joelle Frechette Lab website: http://ww2.jhu.edu/frechette/
Institute for NanoBioTechnology: http://inbt.jhu.edu

Mary Spiro | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://inbt.jhu.edu
http://www.jhu.edu

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht New quantum liquid crystals may play role in future of computers
21.04.2017 | California Institute of Technology

nachricht Light rays from a supernova bent by the curvature of space-time around a galaxy
21.04.2017 | Stockholm University

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

Im Focus: Quantum-physical Model System

Computer-assisted methods aid Heidelberg physicists in reproducing experiment with ultracold atoms

Two researchers at Heidelberg University have developed a model system that enables a better understanding of the processes in a quantum-physical experiment...

Im Focus: Glacier bacteria’s contribution to carbon cycling

Glaciers might seem rather inhospitable environments. However, they are home to a diverse and vibrant microbial community. It’s becoming increasingly clear that they play a bigger role in the carbon cycle than previously thought.

A new study, now published in the journal Nature Geoscience, shows how microbial communities in melting glaciers contribute to the Earth’s carbon cycle, a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

7th International Conference on Crystalline Silicon Photovoltaics in Freiburg on April 3-5, 2017

03.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

New quantum liquid crystals may play role in future of computers

21.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

A promising target for kidney fibrosis

21.04.2017 | Health and Medicine

Light rays from a supernova bent by the curvature of space-time around a galaxy

21.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>