Thinking Small: The Benefits and Challenges of Miniaturization

Jun 19, 2014
Volume 10, Issue 11

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.

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.