Monthly Archives: July 2008

Modular designs, microfluidics, fab lab and rep-rap

I saw today that in the journal “Lab on A Chip,” Rhee and Burns published a new design for modular microfluidics. Microfluidics has been my life for the last 5 years. I think I’ve mentioned it at some point. It’s been an interesting way to go about science and I’m glad to have been doing it. I can see how lots of projects would be easier if people knew how to use these techniques.

It’s a lot like programming, actually. If you have a problem in the digital world, and you solve it with a clever program, then you’re good to go. It’s easy to repeat it, and you can share the design easily, and the next person who uses it doesn’t have to learn the same level of skill. That’s key: once a programmer gets something to work, it’s a program. The next person just has to run it.

I don’t know if the magic of that is clear to people. Imagine if you were a blacksmith. You train for ten years, build your shoulders, learn the dark luminous secrets of molten iron. Then you can make amazing things like the gate to the winter palace in St. Petersburg. Now let’s say you want to be able to share that ability. You can’t just post it on the ‘net. You can share some ideas, maybe a 10 year curriculum that would help develop the skills… but the skills are not transferrable.

These days, if you have an idea and you write it into code, and you post it on the net, anyone can do what you did. With a click. No practice is required. But what about other, more physical things? In the next while, if Gershenfeld is to be believed, we are going to see material things produced by open source software. The RepRap project is gaining some momentum already. But in the microfluidics arena, a certain kind of open source physical goods is already there.

People publish designs and those designs can be reproduced by people who have only limited training in things like fluid mechanics, lithography, and cell culture. Once produced, they open whole avenues toward the data that was once only obtainable by people with years of skill and training. And it will only get better.

How does modular microfluidics fit into this? That’s another step toward anyone being able to build these devices. A number of user facilities will generate the master for replication molding. Once generated, that master can be used to produce hundreds of the modules that the paper describes. Once produced, these modules are like toy bricks: they can be used to produce anything, from automated, computer controlled chromatographs to microeractors.

I suspect that in 10-20 years, the complex synthesis for all kinds of substances will be reduced to a set of a few of these blocks (or something like them). I can imagine that, in principle, anybody could take a simple instruction set, have their RepRap print it, hook it up to their computer and have it produce LSD from a few household chemicals.

How will that play out, legally and socially?


Alcohol is a carcinogen? Solution: more coffee!

I figure if booze increases cancer risk, then I’ll drink plenty of antioxidants in my coffee to counter the effects. There’s no way around it – I would never make a good mormon. I’m not all broken up over it. But the fact is that I see using one indulgence to ward off the ill effects of another as clever rather than immoral.

That means I’d be a bad catholic, too. I figure even though adultery is a bad sin, and condoms are (supposedly) are a bad sin, the two (in this particular case) partially cancel each other out. I mean, if you have to explain to your wife how you gave her the herpes you caught from a prostitute but it’s not as bad as it could be because you avoided the sin of using a condom… I’ll bet that won’t go over well.

What was I saying? Oh – coffee and booze. Not sins. Cancer. Right. So, alert reader Jason wrote me a note saying that the NIH lists alcoholic beverage consumption as known to increase the risk of cancer. On the other hand coffee seems to help for breast cancer, anyway. And I love coffee! So maybe they cancel.

Wishful thinking?


Death from overwork – Karoshi

The Japanese have a word, Karoshi, for “Death from Overwork.” This was sent in by alert reader Robert, who (unlike the Jester) cares about my welfare. I’m not going to work myself to death. I’m going to work myself to exhaustion, then go to Germany. I worked all night last night. I did not get the data I need. I will have to do it again. I have had 9 hours of sleep in the last 48. I have no sense of humor about this fact.

On the other hand, punctuation is hilarious! Gabe and Tycho know! And I agree. What about this phrase “What is f___ing natural?” Is it an intensifier for “natural” in the sense of “What does ‘natural’ even mean?” Or are we to infer a question about the existence of natural coitus? Is there a punctuation solution?

Ah, conversations in lab. I’m so tired. I feel like Ze Frank expresses it best.


too tired. will do better soon.

I have not updated this week because I have been trying to get the data I need to graduate. And I need it in 10 days. It’s like playing roulette with hours of my life: “3 hours on Black 23 to win!”

I am making progress, but will it be enough? The funny thing is that if you work 16 hours a day, the second 8 is actually really good work. Nobody interrupts the second 8 hours. It’s kind-of refreshing.

On a slightly related note, check out that Dounce Homogenizer. Sounds sexy doesn’t it?

I once knew a physicist with a keen sense of irony. Good sense of humor. Then he got to Quals. Quals are like the Board Exam or the Bar Exam, except after those you get to be a Doctor or Lawyer. After Quals you get to keep being a student. You earn the right to keep going. Thank the powers, my program didn’t have quals. After his quals, my friend had no sense of irony. I would make perfectly absurd statements. Things contrary to common sense and all factual data available. Right by him. Not even register.

I’m getting there. I feel like life is giving me the Dounce Homogenizer Treatment.


destroying glass, slow progress, testing to destruction

Todays activities were… marginally productive. I saw more-or-less what I need to see in the model system. Even better, I saw it at slightly less intense conditions than I had originally suspected would be necessary. Then, when I went to repeat the experiment and get the data that will make or break my thesis, my chip died. Of course.

So I did what anyone would do. I troubleshot it to destruction. It turns out that my chips literally explode at about 10-15 kilovolts. I figure that’s good information to have. Here’s an image of the glass surface that blew up. It was a small explosion, but satisfying. Now I need it to work again without blowing up.

That means it’s back to fabrication hell. More hydrofluoric acid will be used. I’m not going to lie: I hate hydrofluoric acid. Not only is it corrosive, but it is also highly toxic. And, even better, it tends to have a numbing effect. So if you get it on you, it will burn and poison you and you won’t know it until it’s too late to get the antidote. Delightful.

I love science!