The same properties that entice kids to play with polystyrene also appeal to scientists and researchers, but for much more serious purposes. Dr. Michelle Khine, who works at the University of California, Irving, is a biomedical engineer who has utilized the shrinking effects of polystyrene in several projects [source: UCMerced].
It all started when she was working with microfluidics devices, which are basically computer chips interlaced with tiny tubes that serve as plumbing. With limited funding, she lacked the type of pricey facilities capable of quickly cranking out prototype devices to keep projects moving forward.
Instead of waiting for better circumstances, she improvised. She etched microfluidics patterns onto the polymer sheets and then shrank them. As the sheets shrank, the patterns on them bulged and became more pronounced. Those etchings in effect become the minute plumbing perfect for experiments requiring cell assay or very small samples of body fluids.
Ultimately, these kinds of devices are used for important purposes. They can be designed to test for diseases inexpensively and quickly (particularly in countries where medical facilities are substandard), determine drug toxicity or even help culture stem cells.
Stem cells, for instance, require a lot of constant upkeep, as researchers must continually change the fluids that nourish and suspend the cells in tiny, separated chambers. When that process has to be done for each individual group of cells, it's time-consuming drudgery. With sophisticated, interconnected microfluidics chambers created on polystyrene, the process can be completed in one quick, clever step. That speeds up research, which in turns speeds up results.
Really, any sort of science that relies on small, intricate components might benefit from Shrinky Dinks plastic. That's especially true for anyone who works with computer data storage, solar energy or other research that necessitates a lot of trial and error. Designs are easily applied to the plastic and then they are shrunk to a much smaller size that suits testing.
Best of all, the sheets of plastic are so inexpensive that scientists can change their designs on the fly and see their work in action in just minutes instead of days or weeks.
It's heady stuff for a polymer that's most popularly known as a children's toy and packaging material. From home ovens to high-tech labs, Shrinky Dinks kits aren't just a fun diversion for artsy kids (and adults). They're potentially a tool to solve some of the world's pressing problems, too.
Author's Note: How Shrinky Dinks Work
Play time and serious research have often intersected. Sometimes it's the fun that accidentally leads to scientific breakthroughs. Other times, as with Shrinky Dinks, an established industry product finds an entirely new market thanks to playful, fresh eyes. Furthermore, Shrinky Dinks are proof that plastics like polystyrene are an indispensable aspect of our current society.
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