chemistry set
April 9, 2014

Stanford Scientist Creates $5 Chemistry Set Inspired By Music Box

[ Watch the Video: The $5 Chemistry Set ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A Stanford University professor has won a $50,000 prize for creating a prototype chemistry set that was inspired by and used parts from a toy music box, the California-based university announced on Tuesday.

According to Kwame Opam of The Verge, assistant bioengineering professor Manu Prakash developed a small device that can be programmed to mix precise amounts of chemical fluids and could help address health and water-quality issues in developing countries.

For his efforts, he was awarded $50,000 towards the development of his prototype in The Science Play and Research Kit Competition (SPARK), a contest jointly sponsored by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Society for Science & the Public that challenged participants to “reimagine the chemistry set for the 21st century.”

Prakash, who was assisted on the project by graduate student George Korir, believes that his chemistry set could be useful in less fortunate parts of the world while also doubling as an educational toy for children.

“In one part of our lab we've been focusing on frugal science and democratizing scientific tools to get them out to people around the world who will use them,” Prakash told Amy Adams of Stanford News. “I'd started thinking about this connection between science education and global health. The things that you make for kids to explore science are also exactly the kind of things that you need in the field because they need to be robust and they need to be highly versatile.”

The music box that served as the inspiration for the chemistry set was received by Prakash’s wife at a workplace Christmas gift exchange one year ago. It used a small hand crank to pull a paper ribbon through a set of pins on concentric disks, and when one of the pins hits a hole in the paper, the disk and pin rotated. This caused another pin to tug on a metal strip in order to produce a sound and ultimately play a song.

Prakash figured out that those rotating pins could also be used to pump fluids through miniature channels or to program valves and droplet generators to behave a certain way. He recruited Korir, and the duo began working on a way to outfit the toy music box with a microfluidics chip, which is a miniature silicon chip that contains tiny channels for manipulating fluids but required electricity and expensive supplemental equipment to operate.

The prototype device they were able to create is “inexpensive, hand-powered, self-contained and programmable,” Adams said, and like the music box, it comes with a hand-cranked wheel and paper tape with periodic holes that were punched by the person using it. When a pin encounters a hole, it activates a pump that releases one drop from the channel. Up to 15 independent pumps, valves and droplet generators can be controlled simultaneously.

“Prakash and Korir didn't set out to make a kit for kids,” Adams said. “Their idea was that a portable, programmable chemistry kit could be used around the world to test water quality, provide affordable medical diagnostic tests, assess soil chemistry for agriculture or serve as a snake bite venom test kit. It could even be used in modern labs to carry out experiments on a very small scale.”

While the original prototype was made of parts from the music box, Prakash and Korir have come up with other versions where the crank and pins were created using a 3D printer. This part of the device is also known as the actuator, and modifications can be made to the paper tape and silicon chip so that it can be used for a variety of different uses. The researchers say the device can be replicated using durable parts that cost less than $5 total.

“This kind of open-ended creativity is what the competition sponsors intended,” Adams said, adding that Prakash and Korir plan to use the prize money “to continue working toward a product that other groups, including researchers and citizen scientists, can then modify and program for a wide range of uses, both educational and scientific.”