This is what a chemistry set for the 21st century looks like

Stathams Chemical Magic chemistry set, c 1920-1940. The cardboard case contains instructions, chemicals and test tubes. The inside of the lid shows a picture of a father and son enjoying the kit.  (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

A device that took top prize in a competition to reinvent the chemistry kit combines a computer chip with a more retro component: a punch card, much like the ones used to program the earliest computers. The chip is covered in tiny pumps, valves and pipes that, based on the commands given by the punch card, combine small amounts of chemicals in different ways to carry out experiments.

“All you need is to punch a series of holes (or just copy somebody’s else protocol) in a piece of paper, insert the paper tape and roll the hand crank,” Stanford assistant professor and kit co-creator Manu Prakash said in a release. “It requires zero electrical power, is extremely low-cost, robust, completely self-contained and can run an arbitrarily complex protocol with no danger of chemical exposure to the operator.”

The Punch-card Programmable Microfluidics chemistry kit. Photo courtesy of George Korir.

The Punch-card Programmable Microfluidics chemistry kit. Photo courtesy of George Korir.

The ability to combine chemicals is reminiscent of a classic chemistry set, but, as Prakash said, it’s impossible to create those noxious fumes for which the old sets were infamous. The chip is loaded with just a few drops of chemicals, enzymes and other materials, reducing cost and the chance of a dangerous spill. The chip itself also costs less than $1 to produce.

“Children can share a protocol (once they perfect a given assay) with each other and somebody else can run a program flawlessly by simply trading the punch-card tape, just as they would trade baseball cards,” Prakash said in the release. “This sense of sharing enables a community; just like a community of programmers who share code to build more complex operations, but now for actual chemistry/biology experiments.”

The device took the top $50,000 prize in the prototype division of the SPARK Competition, which asked competitors to consider what a chemistry set for the 21st century would look like. Second place went to a toy that converts the body’s electrical signals into physical action, such as tightening a fist to turn on a light.

The idea division of the competition was open to teams that had not yet built a prototype, but had a strong idea for a kit. David M. Gertler of Google X and Makani Power won $5,000 and first place for a conceptual project that asks children to build a desert relief shelter and ensure it is sound with tools like thermometers and volmeters.


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