Monday, November 09, 2009

Shrinky Dinks

Remnember Shrinky Dinks? The acetate sheets you colored, cut out, and then shrunk to thick, clunky plastic in the oven? Did you ever think they'd be useful in a scientific lab? Hah!

In 2006, Michelle Khine arrived at the University of California­'s brand-new Merced campus eager to establish her first lab. She was experimenting with tiny liquid-filled channels in hopes of devising chip-based diagnostic tests, a discipline called microfluidics. The trouble was, the specialized equipment that she previously used to make microfluidic chips cost more than $100,000--money that wasn't immediately available. "I'm a very impatient person," says Khine, now an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine. "I wanted to figure out how I could set things up really quickly."

Racking her brain for a quick-and-dirty way to make microfluidic devices, Khine remembered her favorite childhood toy: Shrinky Dinks, large sheets of thin plastic that can be colored with paint or ink and then shrunk in a hot oven. "I thought if I could print out the [designs] at a certain resolution and then make them shrink, I could make channels the right size for micro­fluidics," she says.

So she drew out the designs, and when they were shrunk, used them as a mold for her microchannels. While not perfect, the solution has gotten a lot of attention -- both critical and enthusiastic. Now that she's started, of course, people are working on other applications of her "shrinky-dink model". How very cool!

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