Tasks once performed by instruments that took up the space of an entire laboratory can now be accomplished on a device that
fits into the palm of your hand. This article describes the advantages of miniaturizing laboratory instruments, as well as
the challenges to adapt to and overcome.
In the mid-1940s, the world's first electronic general-purpose computer was produced, dubbed ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator
and Computer). ENIAC was developed at a cost of ~$6 million USD (adjusted for today's value), took up 1800 square feet (167
m2), and consumed 150 kW of power.1 Today, nearly 70 years later, we hold vastly more computing power in our mobile phones than that first computer did — all
because of the constant push towards miniaturization.
PHOTO CREDIT: JONATHAN KITCHEN/GETTY IMAGES
This same drive to reduce the size of technology has certainly played a factor in laboratory and clinical diagnostic instrument
design too, with the parallel development of "lab-on-a-chip" techniques, micro- and nano-scale chromatography systems, as
well as a flurry of effort on enhanced professional "point of care" (PPOC) devices. This is understandable, given the tremendous
benefits miniaturization offers. Even so, mingled with the advantages offered by reduced-size technology are a few limitations
that should be considered by anyone making the move towards miniaturization of laboratory equipment.
Key Benefits of Miniaturization
There are a number of key advantages that miniaturization offers users of analytical equipment. These are typically grouped
into two main areas:
Portability: Miniaturization of analytical instrumentation makes it easier to move the analysis equipment from laboratory to laboratory,
which reduces the risk of sample contamination or loss through mishandling.
From a life science perspective — and especially in PPOC applications — having more portable equipment allows analyses to
be performed in critical care units and operating rooms, offering enhanced convenience for the patient with the added benefit
of more "real-time" results. Miniaturization also allows these tests to be performed on-site during disaster relief efforts;
in support of forensics testing; or in the face of bioterrorism and chemical warfare threats, which adds to the benefits of
increased portability.2 For "lab-on-a-chip" techniques, ever-increasing complexity of chip design allows for more sophisticated analyses to be performed
wherever the analyst desires. This coupled with the ability to fabricate these chips in a relatively short period of time
add to the attractiveness of these miniaturized pieces of equipment.
Reduced Fluid Volumes: As instrumentation reduces in overall size, so do fluid volumes used in the analyses, which subsequently offers scientists
several ancillary advantages:
- Sample size reduction — Smaller analysis pathways require smaller sample sizes. By requiring less sample for each analysis,
sample preparation time as well as sample handling efforts are reduced. For PPOC applications, a reduction in sample size
can offer significant advantages for patients, when obtaining samples for analysis can be more challenging (for example, infants,
geriatric patients, oncology patients, and pets). In high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and related chromatographic
techniques, using smaller sample sizes allows the limited amount of sample available to be used for more analyses and for
further testing and characterization.
- Reagent volume reduction — Smaller flow paths can affect rising costs of reagent handling and disposal when working with smaller
volumes of reagents — especially in key areas like chromatography.
- Faster analysis times — Because fluid passageways are typically much smaller in diameter and length, there is less opportunity
for dispersion to occur, which in turn allows for faster overall analysis times and subsequent increased daily analysis capacity
for each system.
- Lowered operational costs — Overall costs of operation — including power consumption, reagent consumption and disposal, and
consumables disposal — tend to be lower with miniaturized equipment, thus making the per-sample costs less for and improving
the profitability position of the laboratory.