Research Team Designs Low-cost Centrifuge That Uses the Physics of a Simple Toy

A team of researchers used a simple toy called a whirligig as inspiration for designing a low cost centrifuge. The new centrifuge has been named “paperfuge” and could be used as a low-cost health device or educational tool. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

A centrifuge separates materials by spinning the samples very fast. It’s an incredibly useful device in both laboratories and medical settings. For example, a clinical centrifuge can be used for more extensive blood testing or the analysis of DNA samples. A laboratory-grade centrifuge can run thousands of dollars, often making them impractical for low income schools and hospitals. In addition, a centrifuge requires electricity—a problem in countries with limited resources.

Bioengineers from Stanford University worked with Manu Prakash, a scientist who specializes in designing low-cost medical devices for countries with little or no electricity access. When designing the inexpensive centrifuge, he was inspired by a toy that dates back to 3,300 BC. The toy, best known as a whirligig, consists of twine looped through both holes of a button. When the ends of the twine are pulled, the button spins rapidly. The research team relied on the same concept when designing an inexpensive centrifuge that used manpower, not electricity. The device reaches speeds of up to 30,000 g, on par with expensive laboratory-grade centrifuges. The authors also point out that the centrifuge could potentially reach even higher speeds.

The research team’s simple centrifuge doesn’t take up much space and costs only 20 cents to make. It can separate blood samples in less than two minutes; the device can also be used to detect and isolate malaria in 15 minutes. This is incredibly important for countries with limited income and resources that are struggling with malaria parasites.

The team’s paperfuge is an excellent alternative to expensive laboratory equipment. The authors hope that their new device will help health care workers in low-income countries. The paperfuge could also be used as part of an educational program in underfunded schools.


Bhamla et al. Hand-powered ultralow-cost paper centrifuge. Nature Biomedical Engineering (2017)

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