Researchers are developing new technologies that combine a laser and electric fields to manipulate fluids and tiny particles such as bacteria, viruses and DNA for a range of potential applications, from drug manufacturing to food safety.

The technologies could bring innovative sensors and analytical devices for "lab-on-a-chip" applications, or miniature instruments that perform measurements normally requiring large laboratory equipment, said Steven T. Wereley, a Purdue University professor of mechanical engineering.

The method, called "hybrid optoelectric manipulation in microfluidics," is a potential new tool for applications including medical diagnostics, testing food and water, crime-scene forensics, and pharmaceutical manufacturing.

"This is a cutting-edge technology that has developed over the last decade from research at a handful of universities," said Aloke Kumar, a Wigner Fellow and staff member at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

He is lead author of an article about the technology featured on the cover of the July 7 issue of Lab on a Chipmagazine, published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The article also has been flagged by the publication as a "HOT Article" and has been made free to access at http://blogs.rsc.org/lc/2011/06/15/issue-13-now-online/

The article is written by Wereley; Kumar; Stuart J. Williams, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Louisville; Han-Sheng Chuang, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at National Cheng Kung University; and Nicolas G. Green, a researcher at the University of Southampton.

"A very important aspect is that we have achieved an integration of technologies that enables manipulation across a very wide length scale spectrum," Kumar said. "This enables us to manipulate not only big-sized objects like droplets but also tiny DNA molecules inside droplets by using one combined technique. This can greatly enhance efficiency of lab-on-a-chip sensors."

Kumar, Williams and Chuang are past Purdue doctoral students who worked with Wereley. Much of the research has been based at the Birck Nanotechnology Center at Purdue's Discovery Park.

The technologies are ready for some applications, including medical diagnostics and environmental samples, Williams said.