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Bubble wrap has recently been pitched by US scientists as a cheap and ubiquitous vessel for conducting chemical reactions in developing countries — but questions remain over how useful it will be in practice.

Harvard University chemist George Whitesides and his team showed in an Analytical Chemistry paper last month (1 July) that bubble wrap’s gas-filled compartments could be used to conduct chemical reactions and tests, such as measurements of blood glucose levels.

They developed the idea after visiting labs in India, Vietnam and Zambia and noticing that many lacked test tubes and other glassware for running blood tests, culturing bacteria or storing urine samples.

“The scientists do, however, often have bubble wrap around the lab because other equipment is shipped in it,” explains Dionysios Christodouleas, one of the paper’s authors.

Bubble wrap has several characteristics that make it attractive as a container for liquid samples, the authors say. The ‘bubbles’ offer a transparent, naturally sterile and sealed container that is still gas permeable — the latter point being vital for culturing cells. Bubble wrap is also available in a range of sizes and the bubbles are in a regular pattern, which makes it useful for conducting lots of small tests in parallel.

There are also “obvious limitations to the adaptive use of bubble wrap as a container”, says Christodouleas.

“It is difficult to anticipate the potential of the idea without it having been thoroughly tested in resource-poor countries.”

Charles Dhewa, Knowledge Transfer Africa

“The main one being that the process of filling the bubbles with reagents requires the use of syringes or pipette tips, and sealant [to cover the holes made by the syringes]," he says. "But many labs have at least one pipette, and cheap plastic syringes can be also used to fill the bubbles.”

The resulting holes can be closed with cheap acrylate nail hardener, which the researchers say is widely available, or silicone patches.

But the researchers also admit that they have not yet sought feedback from potential users as to how useful the idea is likely to be.

Charles Dhewa, chief executive officer of Zimbabwe-based firm Knowledge Transfer Africa, emphasises that deeper analysis is required. “It is difficult to anticipate the potential of the idea without it having been thoroughly tested in resource-poor countries,” he says.

Anthony Gachanja, a chemist at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya, says the concept has potential. He suggests using bubble wrap for procedures such as testing soil for nutrients during efforts to increase crop yield.

“Testing water — particularly drinking water — for waterborne diseases is another important application that would help change the quality of life for many communities in Africa,” he says. “Instant tests and results would help remote communities make immediate decisions about safety.”

The use of bubble wrap for chemical reactions could also spread into the classroom, Gachanja suggests. “It could be made available for chemistry experiments in secondary schools and universities in areas where laboratory facilities are unavailable or cost is a limiting factor.”

> Link to abstract in Analytical Chemistry


Analytical Chemistry doi: 10.1021/ac501206m (2014)