Department of Electronics

How We’re Shrinking Chemical Labs Onto Optical Fibers

Think back to the last time you got a blood test. Maybe you had your cholesterol checked or got screened for infections, heart disease, stroke risk, thyroid troubles, or osteoporosis. Easy, right? A nurse simply drew your blood and shipped the vials to a lab. But behind the scenes, the process gets more complex. Today’s laboratory technologies require rooms full of temperature-controlled chemicals, analytical machines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and trained technicians to run them. That’s why it probably took days, maybe even a week or two, to get your results. And depending on the tests, a panel of them could easily have set you back several hundred dollars.

Such expenses are a major reason that health-care costs are rising around the world. In rural communities or developing countries, the situation may be much worse than inconvenient. Patients may travel hours or days just to reach a clinic and often don’t make it back to collect the results. Many of them can’t afford tests for such life-threatening diseases as malaria and tuberculosis.

To help solve these problems, we need better laboratory instruments. They should be cheap and portable so that they can be distributed to remote clinics, village doctors, battlefields, disaster zones, and patients’ homes. They should be easy to use so that nurses, hospice workers, soldiers, and even patients themselves can administer tests with minimal training. Finally, these tools should provide results quickly and reliably so that patients don’t have to wait or worry.

Imagine an entire laboratory that fits inside a case the size of a tablet computer. The lab would include an instrument for reading out results and an array of attachable microsize probes for detecting molecules in a fluid sample, such as blood or saliva. Each probe could be used to diagnose one of many different diseases and health conditions and could be replaced for just a few cents.

This scenario is by no means a pipe dream. The key to achieving it will be optical glass fibers—more or less the same as the ones that already span the globe, ferrying voluminous streams of data and voice traffic at unmatchable speeds. Their tiny diameter, dirt-cheap cost, and huge information-carrying capacity make these fibers ideal platforms for inexpensive, high-quality chemical sensors.

We call this technology a lab on fiber. Beyond being an affordable alternative to a traditional laboratory, it could take on tasks not possible now. For instance, it could be snaked inside industrial machines to ensure product quality and test for leaks. It could monitor waterways and waste systems, survey the oceans, or warn against chemical warfare. One day, maybe as soon as a decade from now, it could be injected into humans to look for disease or study the metabolism of drugs inside the body.

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