From Stanford News’ Kris Newby: Here’s how to build a whirligig: Thread a loop of twine through two holes in a button. Grab the loop ends, then rhythmically pull. As the twine coils and uncoils, the button spins at a dizzying speed. Now, using the same mechanical principles, Stanford bioengineers have created an ultra-low-cost, human-powered centrifuge that separates blood into its individual components in only 1.5 minutes. Built from 20 cents of paper, twine and plastic, a “paperfuge” can spin at speeds of 125,000 rpm and exert centrifugal forces of 30,000 Gs.
“To the best of my knowledge, it’s the fastest spinning object driven by human power,” said Manu Prakash, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford.
A centrifuge is critical for detecting diseases such as malaria, African sleeping sickness, HIV and tuberculosis. This low-cost version will enable precise diagnosis and treatment in the poor, off-the-grid regions where these diseases are most prevalent.
The physics and test results of this device are published in the Jan. 10 issue of Nature Biomedical Engineering.
No electricity required
When used for disease testing, a centrifuge separates blood components and makes pathogens easier to detect. A typical centrifuge spins fluid samples inside an electric-powered, rotating drum. As the drum spins, centrifugal forces separate fluids by density into layers within a sample tube. In the case of blood, heavy red cells collect at the bottom of the tube, watery plasma floats to the top, and parasites, like those that cause malaria, settle in the middle.
Prakash, who specializes in low-cost diagnostic tools for underserved regions, recognized the need for a new type of centrifuge after he saw an expensive centrifuge being used as a doorstop in a rural clinic in Uganda because there was no electricity to run it.
“There are more than a billion people around the world who have no infrastructure, no roads, no electricity. I realized that if we wanted to solve a critical problem like malaria diagnosis, we needed to design a human-powered centrifuge that costs less than a cup of coffee,” said Prakash, who was senior author on the study.