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Big science, tiny lab

You can’t take a lab with you…or can you? Eli is working on developing a portable analytical device, which will let scientists take a lab with them on their field work.


What do analytical chemists do when they need a particular piece of lab equipment? They invent it themselves.

Elisenda Fornells Vernet is studying her PhD at the University of Tasmania, and is doing just that.

“I’m working in separation science, which allows us to separate all the compounds in a sample, and quantify them so we know how much there is of each.

“In ASTech in ACROSS we do our investigations with portable analytical separation technologies.

“These are ‘point of care’ devices that mean you don’t need to send your samples to a lab. 

It’s a logistical problem we are trying to solve. If you wanted to test some water on the top of Mount Wellington, you would need a very small device- you cannot carry a two square metre device.

“You can go to the source of the sample and test it there. You could go to the river and test your water sample, or test your blood at home. That’s why we need small devices,” she said.

“I am developing my own small instrument for this.”

The small device must also be able to test very small samples.

“That is the problem that I am dealing with in my research. Sometimes very small samples don’t have much analyde so we get a big sample size and reduce it.

My focus is on concentration of samples. Sometimes we use such a small amount of the sample that we need to pre concentrate that sample so that we can see the compound that we are looking for.

Eli has designed a portable testing prototype, which she is continuing to improve.

“We test samples in the prototypes and then evaluate the separation of those samples and see if we get enough concentration or not. 

“The good thing is this technology can be applied to so many different tests, it’s not restricted to one type of sample or instrument. 

“It can be used to test water or blood, anything really that is dissolved.

“Initially I didn’t like analytical chemistry that much- but when I got involved in it, and saw how crucial it is for the world in general, I liked that. You need analytical chemistry to test things in everyday life. 

It’s amazing what we can do and the things that we can test.

“For example in anti-doping incredibly small quantities of drugs can be found in blood. 

When you get food in the supermarket, that has been tested for whatever compounds they think are relevant. Analytical science tries to cover the needs of society to make sure we are safe and healthy.

Eli said the best part of her project is how it combines different areas of expertise.

“You need to understand analytical chemistry, engineering, and I’m even working with electronics. I like the challenge of learning all those things and combining them.”

Eli grew up in beautiful Barcelona, and had wanted to come to Australia ever since she was a teenager.

“I took part in a research collaboration in Tasmania for six months and then the opportunity to do a PhD came up, so I jumped in. I thought it was a chance to experience Tasmania. I am loving it.”

And why does she like chemistry so much? Eli said “everything in the world is chemistry.”

Learning about chemistry gives you an understanding of the world, then scientific investigation takes it further.

“I think that’s what a PhD is about, to learn about what you want to do in the future, whether you want to pursue a career in research or work in industry. That’s another good thing about ASTech, you get exposed to the industry side of it so you can choose what you prefer.

“I would love it if my device eventually became part of regularly used analytical instruments.”

Eli said the University has “a very nice atmosphere.”

There is a lot of expertise and good supervision. I was really pleased with that. The facilities and the expertise provided by professors. They are really helpful.

“You generally get stuck quite often! But your supervisors will always give you options, maybe things you didn’t think about, and something to try that gets you going again. Supervisors are a big influence.”

Eli said her fellow students are also very helpful.

“When you have a problem, talking about it helps. They might not have an answer for you, but their suggestions might help you think of a solution for that problem. It’s very good that we all talk about our research between us. 

It’s a very international atmosphere here, with people from so many countries. You learn about the world. It’s impressive. It means that Tasmania has good things to offer.

Elisenda’s PhD is supported by the ARC Training Centre for Portable Analytical Separation Technologies (ASTech) (IC140100022), a partnership between the University of Tasmania, Trajan Scientific and Medical, and University of South Australia. She is also a member of the Australian Centre for Research on Separation Science (ACROSS).

Interested in making a big impact with your own research? Start your research degree at the University of Tasmania. Find out more here.