Think 21st century science has nothing in common with the Beatles or computers? Think again.
Much like the popular British rock group and the recent globalization of the computer and technology industry, science at Texas A&M University currently is well on its way toward its own revolution - radically changing the rules governing the synthesis and analysis of the commonplace chemical reaction.
At the forefront of the Texas A&M chemical system charge is the Center for Integrated Microchemical Systems (CIMS), founded in November 2000 as a joint effort of Texas A&M's Office of the Vice President for Research, the College of Science and the Dwight Look College of Engineering.
One of several unique collaborative centers that currently dot the University research landscape, the CIMS is composed of 11 faculty members from the Colleges of Science and Engineering as well as the Texas A&M University System Health Science Center College of Medicine. Directed by Richard M. Crooks, a professor of chemistry at Texas A&M since 1993, the Center's main objective is to foster interdisciplinary research and education focusing on integrated microfluidic systems and their applications to analytical problems and small-scale chemical synthesis.
Microfluidic systems, described as "chemical laboratories on a chip," have graced the science and engineering scene for approximately 10 years. Typically housed on one-inch by three-inch microscope slides, they are similar to computer chips - with one notable exception. Instead of directing the flow of electrons, they direct the flow of chemicals via channels that measure a mere 50 microns across, roughly equivalent to a few human hairs.
Although previous chemical system researchers have focused on chemical analysis, including genotyping and examination of DNA markers, Crooks says he and his fellow CIMS researchers are more interested in chemical synthesis. Because of the on-chip laboratory's very high surface-area-to-volume ratio and more easily controlled reaction conditions, Crooks says these devices hold promise for running reactions that otherwise would not be efficient or feasible in the typical large-scale system.
"This is one example of how a rule changes; a paradigm shift in the way we think about doing reactions," he explains. "There are real technological and economic benefits to trying to shrink the scale of synthesis."
Each chip is manufactured using the same technology currently used to produce compact discs. Because the estimated production cost is only a few cents per chip, Crooks says it may be economically viable to consider running reactions in hundreds of thousands of chips simultaneously.
Although the concept of putting chemical laboratories on chips isn't a new one, Crooks predicts that the applications of this technology eventually will result in social and economic changes on a scale similar to those ushered in with the introduction of integrated circuits in the 1960s.
"That's exactly the kind of technological revolution we're trying to bring about for chemistry," Crooks says. "We want to integrate all the functions of a typical chemical reaction (sample introduction, reaction, separation, purification, detection and quality assurance) onto a single chip."
Researchers like Crooks and his CIMS colleagues will be among the first to benefit if they succeed, because many research-grade chemicals, especially those used by medical researchers, don't have a very long shelf life. By putting reactants on chip, Crooks says, researchers could produce significant amounts of common chemicals that would exist "on demand," waiting to be activated by the simple act of breaking a seal.
In addition to producing research-grade chemicals and biochemicals efficiently, the chips could prove vitally important to budget-conscious educational institutions, which Crooks says often spend more for waste disposal than they do for the original chemicals. If on-chip chemical laboratories could be introduced into these areas, he says, educational institutions could reduce their setup and disposal costs in addition to their liability costs, resulting in a more environmentally sound process all the way around.
While Crooks admits the applications of this technology may be years in the making, Texas A&M is one educational institution that isn't leaving the concept's fate to chance. At the same time Texas A&M administrators launched the CIMS, they also established the Materials Characterization Facility (MCF), a state-of-the-art laboratory designed to provide students with hands-on access to sophisticated instrumentation. In addition to this fully staffed facility, the University continues to provide the CIMS with a number of stipends for graduate students - the future leaders of the miniaturization revolution in industry, according to Crooks.
"Education is as important as our research mission," he says. "All of our objectives at the CIMS are about students and the improvement of all facets of scientific training."
Revolutionary thinking, indeed.
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Richard M. Crooks, email@example.com, (979) 845-5629