If you’re, say, researching a new drug or vaccine, this lab might be perfect.
But not everyone is lucky enough to have access to such resources. If you’re not in a big city, for example, or if you’re one of the world’s many remote health care workers, in which case you might be going someplace where you can bring only what fits in your Jeep.
Which means that lab is just not coming along.
One of the tools we’d really like to make “back-of-Jeep” friendly is the centrifuge.
Centrifuges are one of the most common scientific tools and work by spinning samples at ridiculously high speeds. In medicine they’re used to prep blood samples for analysis. Unfortunately, typical centrifuges are bulky, heavy, expensive, and electronic, which led designers to search for alternative solutions.
Designers often look for inspiration in everyday objects. Some have tried salad spinners as a centrifuge replacement. Others tried egg beaters. Both of those were too slow and awkward, but now researchers at Stanford might have found something awesome.
This simple toy is known as a whirligig.
You may have played with one before, and if you haven’t, they’re dead simple to make. Researchers spotted it and were curious: Could this thing work as a centrifuge? It certainly spun, but how fast? The researchers decided to build their own prototype and test it out.
Using a high-speed camera and some seriously impressive physics calculations, they found that a whirligig could get up to a blisteringly fast 125,000 revolutions per minute. That’s not just fast, that’s centrifuge fast.
Since the first test, researchers have come up with a new whirligig design that could hold small amounts of blood or other scientific samples. They’re calling it the “paperfuge” and are working with health care workers in Madagascar to learn how to improve and distribute it.
Initial results seem good. They can get blood samples to separate in just 90 seconds. After 15 minutes, results were fine enough to even identify malaria parasites. This means the paperfuge might be able to bring a ton of new tests from basic health checkups to serious diagnostics to the millions of people who live outside the range of typical labs.
A lot of science is, unfortunately, out of reach for normal people. Clever design like this could remove some of the barriers.
Creating more accessible equipment could help democratize science, says Dr. Manu Prakash, one of the researchers who worked on the paperfuge. There are a ton of smart, knowledgable people out there, but living in a place where you can easily get and use thousand-dollar centrifuges is a privilege many do not get. New tools like the paperfuge could change that.
Science is one of the best ways we have to learn about and change our world. Imagine what we can do once everyone has access to it.