bubble wrap lo res

[Image above] Creativity can spur innovation from unlikely sources—such as bubble wrap. Credit: Chrysti; Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but creativity is no stranger either.

I admire creative scientists—those who are willing to think about a problem from a different angle, and who aren’t afraid to try to solve that problem with an unconventional solution. Because it just might work.

These are the types who do TED talks, the people who offer up promise and hope of solving a big problem because their approach is so fresh, so new.

whitesides lo res

George M. Whitesides. Credit: Douglas A. Lockard; Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

George M. Whitesides is one of these people—the Harvard chemist has authored more than 1200 scientific papers, patented 50-plus inventions, received countless awards, accolades, and honors, founded more than a dozen companies, and is an all-around creative thinker. And yes, he’s given a TED talk.

(Fun fact of academic genealogy: Whitesides was doctoral advisor to Georgia Tech’s Younan Xia, co-organizer of next month’s Electrospinning conference, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s John Rogers.)

Whitesides (not to be confused with his son, George T. Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic) is big on adaptive use—the process of using widespread, well-designed, and relatively inexpensive existent materials for a purpose other than that which they were originally intended. The process saves time and money in designing and testing prototypes, leaving more of those commodities for perfecting a product’s end use. Think cell phone cameras as microscopes and egg beaters as centrifuges.

Whitesides believes in innovating simple solutions that make a difference in the world. Adaptive use fits right in with this mission, because the components needed to innovate these solutions are cheap and available, meaning they can be implemented almost anywhere.

Several of his more recent projects have been aimed at making simple healthcare solutions that try to bring better diagnostics to areas of the world with very limited access to resources and money.

“Part of my interest in this, I have to say, is that I would like to—how do I put this politely?—change the way, or maybe eviscerate, the capital structure of the U.S. healthcare system, which I think is fundamentally broken,” Whitesides says in his 2010 TED talk.

So, Whitesides says, he thinks about how to make things as simple, cheap, and functional as possible.

Whitesides and his team at Harvard indeed developed a potential new healthcare tool that is incredibly simple, cheap, and functional—bubble wrap as mobile laboratory storage vials.

Recently published in Analytical Chemistry, the team’s clever and unconventional storage solution is one of things that you look at and say, “Duh, why didn’t I think of that!”

Whitesides and his team turned to bubble wrap—ubiquitious, cheap, uniform, and high-quality—and tested whether the bubbles themselves could function as individual micro-test tubes. Because bubble wrap is readily available, small, lightweight, and flexible, it’s an ideal material for remote and undeveloped areas, and in studies performed in the field.

The method is simple—inject a solution of your choosing, whether blood, urine, chemicals, or biological solutions, into a bubble wrap’s bubble with a syringe and seal the small hole with clear nail polish. Alternatively, they show that a self-sealing port can be created on individual bubbles with just a little dollop of silicone caulking. Bubble wrap, nail polish, and caulking—inexpensive and available ingredients.

bubbleHR lo res

Bubbles of bubble wrap as cheap, flexible, and effective mobile test tubes. Credit: The American Chemical Society

The little self-contained bubbles are incredibly versatile. They can be used to store chemicals or biological samples for healthcare diagnostics or zoological studies. But they can also be used as mini-laboratories.

Because the plastic is clear, each bubble can be used as sample-containing cuvette. Or, insert a few little electrodes and you have a miniature electrochemical cell. Because bubble wrap is gas-permeable, each bubble is also a mini culture dish to grow microorganisms, whether to transport microrganismal samples or to perform culture assays in the field. Each bubble can also be used for bioassays for on-site bioanalysis, including hemoglobin concentration and blood glucose levels.

Simple. Cheap. Functional. And potentially very powerful.

The paper is “Adaptive use of bubble wrap for storing liquid samples and performing analytical assays” (DOI: 10.1021/ac501206m). 

And because we know that art and science are forever friends, bubble wrap also has found an adaptive use in the art world. Artist Bradley Hart uses bubble wrap as a canvas, injecting paint into each individual bubble to re-create beautiful paint-by-bubble masterpieces.

What clever adaptive uses can you think of for everyday objects?