This shows a disc of microchips with flexible glass membranes. Photo: Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo.
This shows a disc of microchips with flexible glass membranes. Photo: Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo.

Researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) have developed glass technology that could add a new level of flexibility to the microscopic world of medical devices.

Led by electrical engineering professor Aaron Hawkins, the researchers have found a way to make the normally brittle material of glass bend and flex. This research, which is reported in a paper in Applied Physics Letters, opens up the possibility of creating a new family of lab-on-a-chip devices based on flexing glass.

"If you keep the movements to the nanoscale, glass can still snap back into shape," explained Hawkins. "We've created glass membranes that can move up and down and bend. They are the first building blocks of a whole new plumbing system that could move very small volumes of liquid around."

While current lab-on-a-chip membrane devices function effectively at the microscale, Hawkins' research will allow such devices to work equally well at the nanoscale. Chemists and biologists could use the nanoscale devices to move, trap and analyze very small biological particles like proteins, viruses and DNA.

So why work with glass? According to lead study author and BYU PhD student John Stout, glass has some great perks: it's stiff and solid and not a material upon which things react, and it's easy to clean and isn't toxic.

"Glass is clean for sensitive types of samples, like blood samples," Stout said. "Working with this glass device will allow us to look at particles of any size and at any given range. It will also allow us to analyze the particles in the sample without modifying them."

The researchers believe their device could also allow successful tests to be performed on much smaller samples. Instead of needing several ounces of blood for a test, the glass membrane device created by Hawkins, Stout and co-author Taylor Welker would only require a drop or two of blood.

Hawkins said the device should also allow for faster analysis of blood samples: "Instead of shipping a vial of blood to a lab and have it run through all those machines and steps, we are creating devices that can give you an answer on the spot."

There is an increasing demand for portable, on-site rapid testing in the healthcare industry. Much of this is being realized through microfluidic systems and devices, and the BYU device could take this testing to the next level.

"This has the promise of being a rapid delivery of disease diagnosis, cholesterol level testing and virus testing," Hawkins said. "In addition, it would help in the process of healthcare, knowing the correct treatment method for the patient."

This story is adapted from material from Brigham Young University, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.