MicroChemLab advances lead to first commercialization partnership
Breakthroughs that were hardly more than a glimmer in the eye five years ago have led to the first commercialization agreement to stem from the µChemLab project.
This effort to miniaturize chemical analysis in a hand-held device resulted in demonstration of the first chip-based system to analyze liquids through microscale high-pressure liquid chromatography. Drawn to this success, a world leader in analytical instrumentation, Waters Corp. of Milford, Mass., announced in March that the company is licensing Sandia’s microfluidics technology and launching a cooperative research and development agreement to further develop this expertise.
Says Duane Linder (8101), who oversees research efforts to shrink liquid analysis into a chip-based system, "Sandia was the first, and only, organization to demonstrate a chip-based version of high-performance liquid chromatography, which is the most widely used method for chemical analysis of liquids in the world."
The work was initially begun in late 1996 through a Grand Challenge Laboratory-Directed Research and Development project. Based on advancements made since then, a refined unit for detection of chemical and biological agents is being developed. The research involves some 40 Sandians across the Labs, with gas-phase analytical research centered in New Mexico and liquid-phase research centered in California. Primary support of that work comes from DOE’s Chemical and Biological National Security Program (which started a five-year program in 1999) and relatively new funding from the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The focus, Duane says, is to develop units that can be used by emergency responders or soldiers to detect chemical or biological agents in the field, so they may don protective gear.
Since the initial research began, he says, its broad potential applicability has been recognized. Researchers believe a hand-held device might sniff out explosives, signal food quality, and check environmental safety for paramedics, fire fighters, law enforcement officers, and other specialists who respond to emergencies in which chemical or biological hazards are suspected. Devices could also be tailored to detect pollutants near their source, perform medical diagnostics at a bedside, screen new pharmaceutical drug candidates, or optimize industrial processing.
"We are really strong in certain aspects of microfluidics," Duane says. Sandia researchers have demonstrated the ability to generate more than 9,000 pounds per square inch of pressure in liquids that are moved under an electric current through channels thinner than a human hair. The team has also shown flow rates of more than 100 microliters per minute. Potential applications include microscale pumps, valves, and actuators, as well as cooling for microprocessors.
Waters envisions coupling miniaturized chromatography systems with its mass spectrometry analytical products, Waters’ senior vice president of R&D, John Nelson, said in announcing the licensing and partnership agreement.
"This is a major step forward in our vision to provide miniature chemical analysis systems for national security needs ranging from the detection of chemical and biological agents to the cleanup and monitoring of environmental waste sites," added John Vitko, Director of Exploratory Systems and Technology Center 8100.