The "Lab on a Chip" Revolution

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The "Lab on a Chip" Revolution

The business of chemical analysis has a long history, possibly going back to the 1600s.  But modern analytical chemistry truly began in the 1830s with the German chemist Robert Wilhelm Bunsen, who discovered that each element gives off a characteristic spectrum of light when heated.  He developed the technique of emission spectroscopy and the Bunsen burner to heat elements.  Then, he went on to perfect a battery made of zinc and carbon using nitric acid with which he extracted metals from their salts by electrolysis. 

Despite some obvious advances, chemical analysis of any type remained an awkward, laborious process throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, much as it had been in Bunsen's time.  It also continued to require a great deal of laboratory equipment and time.  Nevertheless, efforts were always underway to streamline analytical processes — whether in science, medicine, or industry — and make them more widely available and easier to use. 

As far back as the mid-1950s, micro-technology began to develop and by the mid-'60s it was being applied to chips used as pressure sensors.  Soon, that technology was being used for various applications, including making sensors for airbags in automobiles.  It was at that point that scientists began using Micro Electro Mechanical Systems — or MEMS — to handle minute quantities of fluids. 

In the process, they developed tiny capillary channels, mixers, valves, pumps, and measuring devices.  The term "lab on a chip" arose in connection with these experiments.  The first actual chip-based analytical system was built at Stanford University in 1974 for gas chromatography.

Intense interest in this field grew throughout the 1980s and '90s.  But big advances only came in the mid-'90s, as researchers realized how useful lab on a chip technology could be for genetic research.  DNA micro-arrays for genetic analysis were developed, and DARPA began funding research on portable biological and chemical warfare detection systems.

As computer chip technology, microelectronics, and micro-mechanical systems increased in sophistication over the past decade, research efforts focused on reducing an entire analytical chemistry laboratory and all of its functions to something that could be carried around and used in the field.  But even so, progress was stymied because samples usually had to be prepared separately, in a full-scale lab, before being processed by the miniaturized lab on a chip...

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