Flexible Glass Has Benefits for Nanoscale Medical-Testing Devices

Researchers at Brigham Young University have developed a method for making glass bend and flex beyond its normally stiff state.

Glass isn’t typically thought of as a material that’s particularly flexible, but researchers at Brigham Young University are changing that with a new type of glass that can be used to bring rapid medical-testing devices to the nanoscale.

A team led by Aaron Hawkins, an electrical engineering professor at the university, has developed a method for making glass bend and flex beyond its typically brittle state. The material could lead to a new type of lap-on-a-chip devices comprised on flexible glass that can perform tests and other functions on the nanoscale, researchers said.

The key to achieving flexibility was to “keep the movements to the nanoscale,” Hawkins said. Doing this allowed the glass to still snap back into shape, he said.

“We’ve created glass membranes that can move up and down and bend,” Hawkins said. “They are the first building blocks of a whole new plumbing system that could move very small volumes of liquid around.”

Current lab-on-a-chip membrane devices already function on the microscale, but the new research—a paper about which was published in the journal Applied Physics Letters —can use nanoscale devices to capture, move, and analyze tiny biological particles like proteins, viruses and DNA.

Researchers chose glass as their material for a number of reasons, they said. They include its solid form, nontoxicity, ease with which it can be cleaned, and the fact that it’s a material that doesn’t cause reactions in other materials. These all are qualities conducive to working in a medical environment at the nanoscale, said BYU Ph.D. student John Stout, who led the study.

“Glass is clean for sensitive types of samples, like blood samples,” he 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.”

 

flexiglass
Researchers at Brigham Young University have developed a method for making glass bend and flex beyond its typically brittle state. Their work could have applications to enhance the performance of small medical devices. (Source: Jaren Wilkey/Brigham Young University)

 

Other benefits the material has for small devices that, for example, take blood samples include the need for a smaller quantity of blood to be taken for the sample, as well as the ability to provide analysis faster, Hawkins said.

“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,” he said.

This latter benefit in particular meets a need in the healthcare field for portable, on-site rapid testing, which currently is filled by microfluidic systems and devices, Hawkins said. The glass invented by BYU could be the basis for a new generation of these devices, he said.

“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 [to know] the correct treatment method for the patient.”

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