"There are two main thrusts in applications," he said. "The first is micro- and nanomanufacturing and the second is lab-on-a-chip sensors. The latter has demonstrated biologically relevant applications in the past couple of years, and its expansion in this field is immediate and ongoing."

The technology works by first using a red laser to position a droplet on a platform specially fabricated at Purdue. Next, a highly focused infrared laser is used to heat the droplets, and then electric fields cause the heated liquid to circulate in a "microfluidic vortex." This vortex is used to isolate specific types of particles in the circulating liquid, like a micro centrifuge. Particle concentrations replicate the size, location and shape of the infrared laser pattern.

"This works very fast," Wereley said. "It takes less than a second for particles to respond and get pulled out of solution."

Systems using the hybrid optoelectric approach can be designed to precisely detect, manipulate and screen certain types of bacteria, including particular strains that render heavy metals less toxic.

"We are shooting for biological applications, such as groundwater remediation," Wereley said. "Even within the same strain of bacteria some are good at the task and some are not, and this technology makes it possible to efficiently cull those bacteria from others. The bacteria could be injected into the contaminated ground. You seed the ground with the bacteria, but first you need to find an economical way to separate it."

Purdue researchers also are pursuing the technology for pharmaceutical manufacturing, he said.

"These types of technology are good at being very dynamic, which means you can decide in real time to grab all particles of one size or one type and put them somewhere," Wereley said. "This is important for the field of pharmacy because a number of drugs are manufactured from solid particles suspended in liquid. The particles have to be collected and separated from the liquid."

This process is now done using filters and centrifuges.

"A centrifuge does the same sort of thing but it's global, it creates a force on every particle, whereas this new technology can specifically isolate only certain particles," Wereley said. "We can, say, collect all the particles that are one micron in diameter or get rid of anything bigger than two microns, so you can dynamically select which particles you want to keep."

The technology also may be used as a tool for nanomanufacturing because it shows promise for the assembly of suspended particles, called colloids. The ability to construct objects with colloids makes it possible to create structures with particular mechanical and thermal characteristics to manufacture electronic devices and tiny mechanical parts. The nanomanufacturing applications are at least five years away, he said.

The technology also can be used to learn fundamental electrokinetic forces of molecules and biological structures, which is difficult to do with existing technologies.

"Thus there are very fundamental science applications of these technologies as well," Kumar said.