A chemistry set, designed by a bioengineer from Stanford University, costs just $5. This "chemistry set for the 21st century" was inspired by a toy music box. It is compact, yet still allows young scientists to explore a wide range of experiments. The kit is also programmable.
Manu Prakash developed the set, in part, to teach children about water quality and public health.
The Science Play and Research Kit Competition (SPARK) challenged developers to create a chemistry set for the modern age.
"In one part of our lab we've been focusing on frugal science and democratizing scientific tools to get them out to people around the world who will use them. I'd started thinking about this connection between science education and global health. The things that you make for kids to explore science are also exactly the kind of things that you need in the field because they need to be robust and they need to be highly versatile," Prakash said.
A music box given as a gift to the researcher led to the most important breakthrough in this new chemistry kit. The box was controlled by a paper ribbon with holes in it, similar to old-fashioned punch cards. These are driven through the mechanism using a small hand crank. A similar mechanism is used in the chemistry kit, controlling the release of up to 15 chemicals, stored in the small mechanism.
Reactions are monitored by a microfluidic chip. These powerful devices are not expensive by themselves, but previous technology required costly machinery and large amounts of electricity to operate. The paper ribbon and hand crank eliminate nearly all the expense, bringing modern technology to the masses.
The inexpensive device can also be used in the field for sampling water quality, or performing medical tests. Programmed correctly, the new mechanism can even diagnose the species of snake responsible for a bite, adding treatment.
A 3D printer is used to create most of the pieces needed to build the device, which further serves to lower the price. The assistant professor earlier developed a 50-cent microscope that folds out like a piece of origami.
Prakash received $50,000 for his new chemistry set design. The assistant professor believes the new kit can serve as a proof of design for inexpensive chemistry sets. These could be distributed in the developing world, providing children interested in science a way to perform experiments on their own.
SPARK was sponsored by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Society for Science and the Public.
Video showing the new $5 chemistry set in action was released by Stanford University and is available on YouTube.