Visualize   By Tracy Staedter   October 2002

How microfluidics works.

Innovations that have transformed room-size computers into dime-size chips are similarly miniaturizing biotechnology. Laboratory tests that previously required lots of equipment, samples, chemicals and time can now be done on a microscopic scale in cheap, mass-produced devices. This so-called lab-on-a-chip technology can automate thousands of experiments a day with great accuracy, saving on expensive chemicals and precious samples.

The chips rely on microfluidics—the manipulation of tiny amounts of fluids in equally tiny tubes and vessels. Agilent Technologies in Palo Alto, CA, and Caliper Technologies in Mountain View, CA, are collaborating to exploit a property called laminar flow, in ways that promise to speed drug discovery.

Tracy Staedter is the managing editor at Technology Review.