Tech Briefs

Terahertz modulation of permittivity of water would enable solvation of molecules of interest.

A proposed device, denoted a miniature microfluidic biomarker extractor (μ-EX), would extract trace amounts of chemicals of interest from samples, such as soils and rocks. Traditionally, such extractions are performed on a large scale with hazardous organic solvents; each solvent capable of dissolving only those molecules lying within narrow ranges of specific chemical and physical characteristics that notably include volatility, electric charge, and polarity. In contrast, in the μ-EX, extractions could be performed by use of small amounts (typically between 0.1 and 100 μL) of water as a universal solvent.

Water Flowing in a Microfluidic Channel would be exposed to electromagnetic radiation, causing the solvation of biomarker macromolecules that would otherwise be insufficiently soluble in water.
As a rule of thumb, in order to enable solvation and extraction of molecules, it is necessary to use solvents that have polarity sufficiently close to the polarity of the target molecules. The μ-EX would make selection of specific organic solvents unnecessary, because μ-EX would exploit a unique property of liquid water: the possibility of tuning its polarity to match the polarity of organic solvents appropriate for extraction of molecules of interest. The change of the permittivity of water would be achieved by exploiting interactions between the translational states of water molecules and an imposed electromagnetic field in the frequency range of 300 to 600 GHz. On a molecular level, these interactions would result in disruption of the three-dimensional hydrogen-bonding network among liquid-water molecules and subsequent solvation and hydrolysis of target molecules. The μ-EX is expected to be an efficient means of hydrolyzing chemical bonds in complex macromolecules as well and, thus, enabling analysis of the building blocks of these complex chemical systems.

The μ-EX device would include a microfluidic channel, part of which would lie within a waveguide coupled to an electronically tuned source of broad-band electromagnetic radiation in the frequency range from 300 to 600 GHz (see figure). The part of the microfluidic channel lying in the waveguide would constitute an interaction volume. The dimensions of the interaction volume would be chosen in accordance with the anticipated amount of solid sample material needed to ensure extraction of sufficient amount of target molecules for detection and analysis. By means that were not specified at the time of reporting the information for this article, the solid sample material would be placed in the interaction volume. Then the electromagnetic field would be imposed within the waveguide and water would be pumped through the interaction volume to effect the extraction.

This work was done by Xenia Amashukeli, Harish Manohara, Goutam Chattopadhyay, and Imran Mehdi of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. NPO-46150