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A $5 Chemistry Set (And Other ‘Frugal Science’ Inventions)
April 8, 2014
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(Photo: George Korir)

Remember chemistry sets? Those toys that were full of test tubes, beakers and instructions for making a volcano out of baking soda and vinegar?

The "set" you see above is many times more advanced than the ones you might have played with as a kid, and could end up being used as a real-life piece of field equipment for developing countries. Amazingly, it will only cost $5.

The device was created by Stanford professor Manu Prakash and his graduate student George Korir for a contest called the Science, Play and Research Kit Competition, funded by The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Society for Science and the Public in the U.S. The challenge: reimagine the chemistry set for the 21st century.

And boy did they deliver. The invention is based on "microfluidics," a technology that makes use of miniature pipes, valves and pumps to precisely mix together different chemical or biological materials. It's the kind of technology you might expect to find in DNA chips or molecular biology labs — but made from cheap, durable materials that cost less than $5.

Prakash and Korir say the applications could go well beyond the classroom. "I'd started thinking about this connection between science education and global health," Prakash said in a statement. "The things that you make for kids to explore science are also exactly the kind of things that you need in the field because they need to be robust and they need to be highly versatile."

Prakash and Korir envision the device being used to test water quality or assess soil chemistry in places where more expensive lab equipment isn't feasible. They explain their thinking in the video below.

Prakash's Stanford lab is at the forefront of a movement called "frugal science," coming up with low-cost (but often high-tech) devices that could be spread to developing countries, often for biomedical diagnostics. Another creation from the lab is the Foldscope, a foldable origami-inspired microscope with 2,000X magnification that weighs less than 10 grams, can fit in a pocket, requires no external power — and costs less than 50 cents to make. In this video, Prakash explains how the Foldscope works:

Prakash's lab isn't the only one working in the frugal science space. The Little Devices team at MIT has been developing simple tools for low-cost diagnostic and medical applications, including an inhaler made from a bike pump and a solar-powered autoclave to sterilize medical instruments in Nicaragua.

For more on the frugal science movement, see this article on SciDevNet and this overview article in The Lancet.


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