Arjun Garapaty during his summer internship at MRIGlobal. Photo courtesy of MRIGlobal.
Arjun Garapaty thinks big. It wasn’t that long ago that he earned a perfect score on his ACT test… as a sophomore in high school. Now a sophomore at University of California, Berkley majoring in Chemical Biology, Garapaty joined MRIGlobal for a summer internship in the engineering department. So, what’s Arjun been doing in the engineering department? Leading development of a microfluidic device that expands flow chemistry capabilities and could result in his name being on a patent!
Flow chemistry is the study of chemical reactions in a continuous stream of liquid, rather than in a beaker. Reactants are pumped at a known flow rate into a channel or tube, where they combine and initiate chemical reactions, which can then be observed. The benefit is that microfluidic reactions are more rapid, cost-effective, and automatable than traditional methods. With microfluidics, whole reaction spaces can be investigated using a series of interconnected and fully contained modules, a field known as lab-on-a-chip (LOC) microfluidics. And while this technology currently exists on a micro- scale, it’s most often used in biology, where the chemicals are compatible with existing acrylic materials used in chip design. That’s not the case in chemistry, where these same chips are unable to withstand the harsh chemical solvents involved in these reactions.
As an alternative for use in chemistry, Arjun designed and fabricated a chip made from Teflon – a thermoplastic polymer – that can withstand these chemicals. He first designed the microfluidic channels in CAD and then laser cut them into one layer of Teflon. Using thermo-bonding to adhere layers of Teflon on either side of this first layer, these combined layers create a chip the size of a credit card that enables improved microfluidic reactions. Through weeks of tinkering to find just the right material, heat, and time needed to perfect the process, Arjun believes his innovative techniques will result in a chip that, unlike existing approaches to compatible chip fabrication, can be produced quickly and inexpensively. It is this interdisciplinary approach – using chemistry and engineering – that drew Arjun to MRIGlobal for the summer.
“At the beginning of the summer, I didn’t know how to operate a power drill. But the entire team has been so incredibly helpful in teaching and helping me along. Now, I can work in the lab and in the shop, engineering, fabricating, and testing this device,” says Garapaty. “I’ve learned that I shouldn’t be daunted by what I don’t know. The most important skill to succeed in an environment like this, where you’re surrounded by smart people, is curiosity.”
The chip Arjun designed can enhance a laboratory’s ability to run quicker, more efficient reactions, while chip production is inexpensive. As a next step, sensing technologies can be incorporated into the chip so measurements can take place in-line, assessing the reaction as it’s happening. This will increase the delivery speed of research results.
With the chip design and fabrication process now complete, Arjun has his eyes set on something bigger. “It’s a new production method and resulting technology, so we’re talking about applying for a patent, which would be pretty cool.” For Garapaty, that kind of big thinking is nothing new.