Nano@Tech: Extraterrestrial Organic Analyzers: Microfluidic Approaches to Astrobiology’s Questions

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Prof. Amanda M. Stockton
School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology

Abstract: Microfluidics offers multiple unique and powerful tools with which to address astrobiology’s big questions, including “Is there life beyond Earth?”  One key microfluidic technology in the search for life beyond Earth is the Extraterrestrial Organic Analyzer (EOA) microcapillary electrophoresis (µCE) laser-induced fluorescence (LIF) detection system.  EOA, because it uses a programmable microfluidic architecture (PMA) in tandem with µCE-LIF, enables rapid, automated, and extremely sensitive analyses of organic biomarkers (down to 70 pM or sub pptr) including amines, amino acids, dipeptides, aldehydes, ketones, carboxylic acids, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.  The PMA, based on normally-closed or lifting-gate monolithic membrane microvalves, enables automated sample processing with complex fluidic manipulation including mixing, dilution, labeling, and transfer for analysis of multiple compound classes within minutes.  EOA technology has been proposed for Mars rover missions and Enceladus fly-by missions.  Recent work in our group has looked at hardening the technology for a 50,000 g 5 km/s impact mission for Europa.  This requires the entire optical subsystem be assembled with sub-micron precision and permanently welded as a single monolithic stack.  It also requires that we transition from pneumatically-actuated microvalves to hydraulic valves with incompressible fluids.  This talk will present an overview of EOA, with detailed descriptions of the microfluidics that makes this technology possible.

This work was performed in collaboration with the Stockton Research Group at Georgia Tech (Z. A. Duca, T. P. Cantrell, G. Tan, M. H. Dorn, M. A. Van Enige, and M. Cato), P. Putnam of Sierra Lobo, J. Kim of Texas Tech, and R. A. Mathies of UC Berkeley.

Bio: Amanda Stockton is an Assistant Professor in Chemistry and Biochemistry at Georgia Tech.  Prior to this appointment, she worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.  Her PhD work was with Richard Mathies at UC Berkeley after she earned a Master’s degree in chemistry from Brown University and Bachelor’s degrees in aerospace engineering and chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Stockton group’s research focuses on the development of ultra-highly sensitive analytical methods and portable equipment using microfabricated capillary electrophoresis with laser-induced fluorescence detection (µCE-LIF) and other microfluidic technologies. Dr. Stockton has extensive experience in the use of µCE-LIF to detect very low levels (sub-pptr) of organic molecules in astrobiologically relevant samples, including samples from the Murchison meteorite, Atacama Desert, Saline Valley, Rio Tinto, etc… Her work also includes a significant field-work component, including field expeditions to map lava tube caves in the Mojave Desert and repeated expeditions to volcanic regions of Iceland as a Martian analogue.


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