Carolyn Ren with her lab on a chipWhen you picture a laboratory, what do you see? Complex machines, beakers and lasers, maybe a person hunched over a microscope?

Forget it all. The next generation of labs will be small enough to fit inside a handbag, and Waterloo’s researchers are forging new frontiers in their design and efficacy.

Lab-on-a-chip technology, as it’s known, is a highly competitive field that has been growing for the past 20 years.

From silicon slides that used a tiny tube to conduct fluid for a single test, the chip-labs have become increasingly complex.

Today’s labs-on-a-chip devices are made of polymers and plastics in addition to silicon materials and contain multiple channels able to conduct separate tests at the same time.

And now, Waterloo mechanical and mechatronics associate professor Carolyn Ren has devised a revolutionary way to both control the flow of liquids through the chip, and to monitor and heat the fluid as required.

The future is small

By using a system similar to fuel injection in a car, Dr. Ren can inject tiny droplets of the study fluid into a base fluid, like putting tiny drops of water inside a tube of oil.

The fluids won’t mix, which means the liquid being tested can flow quickly through the chip, enabling fast-flowing, immediate analysis.

“We found a way to direct the droplets along channels, so you can compare drugs A and B,” said Dr. Ren, who is the Canada Research Chair in Lab-on-a-Chip Technology and was recently elected a fellow of the Canadian Society of Mechanical Engineering.

“We also developed a remote, microwave sensor that not only senses when a droplet appears, but heats it at the same time.”

It’s a break-through that promises to allow faster, more dynamic testing in increasingly smaller chips, and it is slashing the cost of lab tests.

Big impact

“We have managed to make it for $200, including the reader” that hooks up to the chip to analyse the data, she said.

“This technology can be useful for the food sector, car engine manufacturing, polymer manufacturing. It’s an enabling technology.”

And if Dr. Ren has her way, it could be used in everything from testing the quality of your milk to checking your car engine oil while you drive.

“We’re leading in engineering and design,” she said.

Ultimately, she’d like to see the pharmaceutical industry replace outdated rooms of equipment with these new, see-through, tiny labs. It could not only improve the drug-making process, but drastically cut the cost of medication.

“I think that’s where this technology should go, and have an impact for human life,” she said.