2008 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize Finalist
|Courtesy of Manu Prakash
As a child growing up in the crowded metropolitan mega-cities of India, Prakash had a strange fascination with fire. Every year he would eagerly wait for summer vacation, when his family would take a trip to the countryside to visit his grandmother, so his imagination could light-up. His most memorable childhood constructions included contact-fuse rockets that exploded upon hitting the ground and scaled down models of tanker ships to study oil spills in open waters, complete with fire and explosions. His work on oil spills was recognized early on by Xerox India.
As time passed, Prakash became more serious about matching his craving for invention to the needs of society. As a native of India, he witnessed firsthand the power of technology as a means of social change. “Growing up in a developing country truly sensitizes you to the need to solve social and technological problems our society currently faces,” explained Prakash. He drew much of his inspiration from his mother (who is a teacher) and his older brother, who was willing to share the blame when things went wrong in an experiment.
Engineering seemed to be an obvious next step for Prakash. For his undergraduate work, he chose Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur, where he pursued a bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering. His true interests however, lied in the realms of traditional engineering and physics. Gradually, Prakash started spending more time in the machine shop instead of the air-conditioned computer labs, which raised a few eyebrows including the Dean's. Prakash then worked at the robotics center at IIT Kanpur, where he built omni-directional walking robots and developed algorithmic approaches in order to construct new mechanical transmissions.
From the beginning, Prakash was passionate about supporting and instilling the “inventive bug” in others. In 2002, he started a novel toy design contest open to all engineering schools in India. For fun, while studying traditional toys, he invented robotic “katpulti,” in an attempt to make the slowly fading art of puppet dance from western India popular again and was then granted his first Indian patent.
Now, Prakash is a Ph.D. candidate at MIT’s Media Lab and Center for Bits and Atoms, where he also earned his master’s degree. Prakash holds several patents and pending patent applications for his work that has been highlighted in numerous national and international journals including Science and Nature.
Prakash's most notable invention is “Bubble Logic,” an all-fluidic system to control sub-nanoliter quantities of biological and chemical reagents in microfluidic devices. Working with bubbles may sound childish, however, Prakash has helped to pioneer a new paradigm in fluid control by exploiting these bubbles to construct fluidic circuits that mimic computer circuitry. “Bubble Logic merges chemistry and computation, allowing a digital bit to carry a chemical payload. This approach removes the distinction between materials in a reaction and mechanisms to control them,” explained Prakash.
Prakash is currently focusing on applications of his all-fluidic control technology in the field of controlled drug delivery via implanted devices, and is in the process of starting a commercial partnership.
The most immediate impact of Prakash’s work lies in the field of nano-liter fluidics, where tiny chips are used to regulate small volumes instead of traditional glassware that was used in chemistry for centuries. Looking broadly, Prakash is targeting a number of applications in high-throughput screening and single-cell handling platforms. This type of work has the potential to result in further interdisciplinary studies in the field of microfluidics, guided by the history of progression in micro-electronics.
Prakash has also demonstrated his talents in very diverse areas such as medical devices for rural healthcare, biomimetics, energy and telecommunications. With the help of a small team, Prakash invented a portable transport incubator as an affordable, reliable, and safe means to transport premature babies with the hope to extend the reach of neonatal care to every baby in the developing world.
During his travels to Ghana and South Africa via the CBA FabLab program, Prakash noticed the unmet need for mercury-less thermometers. “Disposable thermometers are uncommon in most parts of the world, commonly leading to the transfer of contagious diseases across patients,” explained Prakash. To tackle the very real danger of mercury spills leading to contamination of food sources, Prakash designed a stick-on microfluidic thermometer as an open-source project that is currently being tested in Fablabs in South Africa.
Inspired by the integument of numerous species of insects that walk on the surface of water, John Bush, MIT faculty in the department of mathematics, and Prakash have invented a novel surface that not only repels water like a lotus leaf, but also presents a directional resistance to flow on this surface. Such a synthetic surface with preferential directionality toward fluid-flow can be utilized in directed transport and significant drag-reduction while propelling through water. With an eye toward commercialization, Prakash is also developing a roll-to-roll process to manufacture this unique surface in large quantities; the patents for this project are currently pending.
“After being at MIT for a while, we often tend to forget how densely populated this place is with creative people. Being in the company of this amazing crowd is truly inspirational”, explained Prakash. He was the recipient of MIT 100K Runners-up Prize in the Development Track (2006), MIT IDEAS Boeing Sustainability Prize (2003) and Megabucks Entrepreneurship Competition (2002). For his exceptional ability, originality and resourcefulness, Prakash has been awarded the Junior Fellowship (Physics) at the Harvard Society of Fellows for the term 2008-2011, which allows him the freedom to pursue studies in any department and discipline without formal requirements.
Prakash's research at MIT is primarily sponsored by National Science Foundation Center for Bits and Atoms.