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NASA and ESA are interested in one day exploring Titan using atmospheric balloons and lake landers that would require sophisticated miniature instrumentation capable of performing automated chemical analyses. Artist concept of an atmospheric balloon and lake lander.

MDL News & Trends

Lab-On-A-Chip and in the Freezer: Analyzing Titan’s Organic Soup

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is a captivating world with a thick atmosphere and an active “hydrological” cycle. On this frigid moon, the liquid phase is not water but hydrocarbons — methane and ethane — which form clouds, rain, and large lakes. Energetic atmospheric chemistry generates a plethora of complex organic molecules, which form aerosols and settle onto the surface. Although it is unclear how much organic material is dissolved in the hydrocarbon lakes, the shorelines and extended planetary dune structures are thought to hold vast reserves of complex organics waiting to be explored. Analysis of these complex mixtures requires versatile instrumentation, and in our laboratory we are developing new technologies to enable such analyses.

MDL's Microfluidics group is focused on the development of the next generation of miniaturized lab-on-a-chip systems that can perform chemical analyses without the need of a human operator present during the process.

Using tholins, simulated Titan organic material, we have demonstrated automated lab-on-a-chip devices such as that pictured below. In our work, we utilize solvents with low freezing points that can dissolve organics and enable in situ analyses in Titan’s native environment. By coupling low-temperature-capable architectures with ultrasensitive detection techniques, we can generate a “fingerprint” of a complex organic sample, such as long-chain amines to better understand the organic chemistry on Titan (see figure below).

Above: Analysis of a mixture of organic compounds, specifically amines with different carbon chain lengths (C1 to C18). They are dissolved in ethanol and detected on a lab-on-a-chip device. PB is Pacific Blue, the dye that attaches to the amines and makes them fluorescent.