Microscale Chemistry: Small tools, big fun!

by Dr. Lee Hooi Ling

Jason, a secondary school student, was amazed to see the LED light up after immersing two simple carbon rods taken from drawing pencils, which were attached by wire to the LED, in acidic water, using a simple microwell plate.

Conductivity test is just among the experiments that can be conducted using microscale chemistry approach. Microscale chemistry is an alternative technique to cultivate students’ individual laboratory skills through the use of miniature apparatus that are recyclable and cheap.

Microscale Chemistry was first introduced by Egerton Grey in 1928. However, this approach only started to gain interest 20 years ago. It can be considered a pollution preventive method because it significantly decreases the amount of chemical used and produced waste. Due to the minute characteristic of the kits, the setup requires a small storage area and does not involve traditional lab setting. Therefore, it reduces the reliance on the ventilation systems that usually incur a high cost. Ventilation systems are essential in laboratories to draw out fumes emitted from chemical reactions and to keep the indoor air quality controlled.

Microchemistry set.
RADMASTE Microchemistry set.

In the past decade, students are short of hands-on skills due to insufficient equipment in school laboratories and time constraints during practical classes. Thus, one of the solutions to promote practical work back in schools is by adopting microscale chemistry techniques. It is shown to be an effective tool to introduce science concepts to kids, particularly lower secondary school students.

In Malaysia, microscale chemistry has been pioneered since 2004 by Professor Dr. Norita Mohamed and Dr. Zurida Haji Ismail from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) who developed experiment modules based on the Malaysian Form Four and Five (KBSM) chemistry syllabus.  They used a RADMASTE microchemistry kit from South Africa and small volume glassware. Their findings showed that there is a reduction of as much as 70 % on chemicals used and up to 75% reduction in the experiment’s duration.  Many workshops have been held since then to introduce microscale chemistry to teachers throughout Malaysia, Surabaya, Indonesia and even Santiago, Chile.  Through various government funding, 14 Malaysian secondary schools have been given such kits.

Traditional lab glasswares.
Traditional lab glasswares.

Looking at the benefits of employing microscale chemistry techniques, Dr. Lee Hooi Ling and her team which also include Professor Dr. Norita and Dr. Lim Gin Keat, all from School Chemical Sciences, USM, are working on the microscale water-purity-tests-kits for secondary schools in Penang since 2014. They have developed a series of microscale chemistry-water-purity experiments using parts assembled from materials that are easily accessible in supermarkets and more importantly, the cost is extremely inexpensive. It is considered the first Malaysian Microscale Chemistry kits. They focused mainly on form three secondary students from Penang in their outreach programmes. Many more programmes are expected to be conducted in the future.

“Using a microscale chemistry kit is very interesting. I prefer doing experiments using the microscale approach to using the traditional method” are some of the positive comments given by secondary school students in one of the studies’ interviews.

Water conductivity test from the Malaysian Microscale Kit.
Water conductivity test from the Malaysian Microscale Kit.

Students favour the microscale method because they have fun while working on the experiments and the kits aid in their understanding in the chemistry concepts. Besides, the project also has conducted a number of exhibitions and workshops in Penang in the last two years. Some constructive comments from the past users are addressed in the current kit development process.  The experiments in microscale have generated the interest of students in science and increased students’ confidence to carry out the experiments individually.

Microscale chemistry has definitely made its mark in Malaysia. The integration of this technique in the Malaysian secondary school education by the Ministry of Education in the future is important.  It is the hope that the microscale chemistry syllabus will be part of the secondary school and university education in Malaysia one day.

About the author:

Dr. Lee Hooi Ling is currently a senior lecturer in School of Chemical Sciences, USM. She regards herself as a true Penangite at heart but an ambassador to the world. She can be reached at hllee@usm.my

The author wishes to acknowledge the Division of Industry and Community Network (BJIM), USM for the funding obtained for this project.

Note: At the time of publication, the Advanced Malaysia Microscale Chemistry Kit is being developed by a project led by Professor Dr. Norita Mohamed, USM.

The Malaysian syllabus of microscale chemistry can also be downloaded at this website.

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