Manu Prakash, an assistant professor in bioengineering at Stanford University, recently won a $50,000 award for developing a simple way to reimagine the chemistry set for the 21st century. By using parts from a music box, Prakash, with the help of graduate student George Korir, was able to create a device that can be programmed to mix precise amounts of chemical fluids in a way that's useful for both students and researchers. Most important, though, is that his prototype can be recreated for just $5.
Prakash and Korir's design relies on the metal pins that pass through punch card paper in order to release chemicals from individuals channels. In the same way the ribbon in a toy music box determines what song is played, punched holes can be programmed to determine what chemicals are released and how they react. "Punch-card paper tapes like this have been used to program computers and fabric looms," Prakash told Stanford News, "so why not chemistry?" In the simplest design, as many as 15 pumps can be controlled simultaneously.
With the $50,000 grant, the designs can soon be democratized with the help of 3D printers. Using cheap materials, the tool can be created for as little as $5. The resulting sets can be used to teach chemistry, but they can also be utilized in global health contexts. Prakash envisions the tool being used to test water safety — by releasing chemicals that test for pH balance and contaminants, users can cheaply see if their water is safe for drinking. And, of course, children who are just starting to love science can program their own experiments on the fly.