Stanford University's Manu Prakash, PhD, loves coming up with cheap, rugged scientific equipment, like his 50c microscope made of folded cardboard. Now he's followed that up with another ingenious chemistry tool: a $5 device that uses the guts from a music box to control chemical reactions with super precision.
Dr Prakash's hand-cranked chemistry set uses a paper punch card to control the flow of up to 15 different chemicals. Each hole punched in the card triggers a mechanism that delivers a single drop of chemical into the reaction chamber. Punch cards can be tweaked to control the amount and timing of each chemical addition, making high-precision experiments as simple as turning a tiny crank.
The simple device won Dr Prakash and his team a $US50,000 grant from the Science Play and Research Kit Competition (SPARK), sponsored by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Society for Science & the Public. While the tiny device could make a great toy for science-minded kids, Dr Prakash didn't set out to make a mere plaything.
"In one part of our lab we've been focusing on frugal science and democratizing scientific tools to get them out to people around the world who will use them," Dr Prakash told Stanford Report's Amy Adams. "I'd started thinking about this connection between science education and global health. 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."
Just like Dr Prakash's folding microscope, the hand-cranked chemistry set is envisioned as a way to bring accurate chemistry to the field. The team envisions uses including water testing, medical diagnosis, and identifying venom types in snakebite victims. Since the accurate metering of individual chemicals is handled by the device, and the user never needs to touch the chemicals, even an inexperienced user could run an accurate chemical test.
The music box chemistry set might not make much sound, but its promising capabilities are music to our ears. [Stanford]