Researchers at the National
Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated a microminiaturized
device that can make complex viscosity measurements—critical data for
a wide variety of fields dealing with things that have to flow—on sample
sizes as small as a few nanoliters. Currently a table-top prototype, the NIST
rheometer could be a particularly valuable tool for biotechnologists studying
minute quantities of complex materials that must function in confined spaces.
Viscosity, elasticity and how materials flow when subject to a force is the
subject of rheology, and the measurements tell a lot about a complicated material
like a gel. Is it more like a liquid or a solid? By how much and under what
conditions? The popular toy Silly Putty™ is a classic example of complex
viscoelasticity, bouncing better than a rubber ball under a sharp, sudden force
but slumping into a puddle when left alone.
One common way to make dynamic rheology measurements (how behavior changes
with the speed or frequency of the applied force) is with a sizeable lab instrument
that traps a test sample between a fixed plate and one that moves, and measures
how much the thin layer of test material resists being deformed. Typical sample
sizes are around a couple of milliliters, which doesn't sound like much, but,
says polymer scientist Gordon Christopher, for some researchers it's a whole
"A lot of people in the biosciences are making very complex designer fluids
based on proteins where you might make only 10 milliliters at a time. Polypeptide
hydrogels for drug delivery or tissue replacement, for example," Christopher
explains. "Their flow behaviors are very complicated and you really need
to understand them, but in a traditional rheometer your sample for a single
test is a large percentage of what you just spent two months making."
Inspired by a talk by a NIST scientist working on the design of novel nano
positioning microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), team leader Kalman Migler
and his colleagues began a collaboration to build a MEMS device that duplicated
a classic sliding-plate dynamic rheometer—but in a space about one-twentieth
the size of a postage stamp. The sample size of the MEMS rheometer is about
5 nanoliters. "With our device, if you gave me a milliliter of sample,
I could give you back hundreds of tests," Christopher says.
Equally as important, he says, the MEMS rheometer inherently tests materials
when they are confined in a very small space. For many biological applications
where the material is meant to be used in a confined region like a blood vessel
or the interior of a cell—or must be injected through a thin needle—understanding
the flow characteristics of small amounts in a small space is more important
than knowing how it behaves in bulk.
NIST's early prototype MEMS rheometers include only the core sliding plate
mechanism on the MEMS chip, and rely on a microscope and high-speed cameras
for the actual measurements. In a more polished version, according to the research
team, the necessary sensors could be included on the chip and the entire instrument
reduced to a handheld device for, e.g., quality control measurements on a plant
floor. The NIST MEMS dynamic rheometer is described in a new paper in Lab on
* G.F. Christopher, J.M. Yoo, N. Dagalakis, S.D. Hudson and K.B. Migler. Development
of aMEMS based dynamic rheometer. Lab Chip, 2010, Advance Article. DOI: 10.1039/C005065B.