Bringing lab capability to the field

Jon Lawson

When a thermal application requires a portable solution, Watlow’s Ultramic ceramic heaters offer impressive performance in a small package. A UK expert in clinical diagnostic field research recently decided that Ultramic was the best choice for its device.

Oxford Nanopore Technologies is developing a line of portable devices for DNA sequencing. Analyzing DNA has traditionally been done in a laboratory with benchtop devices. Oxford Nanopore is working to enable the analysis of any living thing, by any person, in any environment. The company’s MinION device is the first portable, real-time, long-read, low-cost device designed to bring easy biological analysis to anyone. 

DNA sequencing can be an important tool in field research and medical diagnostic tests based on a patient’s genes, but sending samples away to a lab can take days or even weeks to produce results. As Oxford Nanopore's device analyses the sample, it streams information to a laptop computer to run the sequencing, producing results immediately. 

Oxford Nanopore approached Watlow looking for a very small heater for sample preparation to begin the sequencing process. The fluid needs to be heated to a specific temperature, held there and then cooled down before the testing can begin. The customer’s requirements included a heater that could fit in a handheld device with enough power to hit the required temperature in a reasonable time. The heater had to be lightweight with a small thermal mass. Also, the heater had to be flat with close contact to a piece of glass to provide efficient heating. 

Traditional heating solutions simply did not fit the requirements. Andrew Hall, outside sales engineer, suggested Oxford Nanopore look at the Ultramic ceramic heater. The company purchased a small number of standard heaters for testing, which went well. That led to buying 100 purpose-built heaters with a slightly different shape and thickness for the heaters. The company is now going through final testing before achieving full production. The company projects buying 2,000 to 3,000 Ultramic devices annually in coming years. 

“The size of the heater is about 10mm square. It is very small,” Hall said. “We do not just supply the heater, we provide the thermal assembly including a holder and a sensor. When they get the assembly, it is ready to be inserted straight into the device during production.” 

Andy Selvy, chief system designer, said the opportunity with Oxford Nanopore demonstrated the value of starting with a standard product to address a customer’s needs. “Starting with our standard offering minimised the investment for both companies,” Andy said. "It also reduced the time to get test data and helped avoid unnecessary iterations to lock in on the final design.”

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