PROVO — In just a few minutes, with microscopic glass tubes and a nanoliter of liquid, a team of BYU researchers can track down even the most elusive virus molecules.

The team of professors and students has created a tiny silicon microchip that traps molecules based on size, not quantity.

"The underlying goal is to try to apply ideas from micro-electronics to health," said Aaron Hawkins, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who is heading up the multi-disciplinary project. "The hope for lots of these 'lab on a chip ideas' is that in the future you'll see (them) in doctor's offices so the diagnosis can happen in minutes."

The technology would also allow researchers in the field to instantly identify a disease outbreak without waiting for time-consuming lab results, Hawkins said.

This "lab on a chip" technology already exists to map genomes, separate cells, evaluate cancer and diagnose blood samples, Hawkins said. But the team's goal is to make molecule identification easier and more accessible.

The team's progress is being published in "Lab on a Chip," a scientific journal that discusses microfluidic and nanofluidic technologies for chemistry, physics, biology and bioengineering. Other co-authors are Jie Xuan, Daniel Maynes, H. Dennis Tolley, Adam Woolley and Milton Lee.

The minutes-long process begins when liquid is dropped onto the chip to travel through the nanometer-sized pipes, which narrow as they go through the chip.

Molecules bigger than the openings get stuck and accumulate. And thanks to added fluorescing dyes that stick to the molecules researchers hope to track, they can quickly locate clumps of glowing molecules with a special light and camera.

Because the process only requires a few nanoliters of liquid — 100 times less than what's in a water droplet — to use the chip as a water purifier wouldn't be cost- or time-effective, Hawkins said.

However, chemistry professor and co-author David Belnap said he hopes they can get to a point where the chip can be used to harvest purified viruses to study.

"Right now, we can get them in there, but we can't get them out without destroying them," Belnap said.

The team's next goal is to develop one chip that can trap a variety of different molecules, Hawkins said.

That would mean glass tubes with several, or even hundreds, areas of narrowing, with particles collected at each point.

"The main point of our research … is to provide another method of (separating and detecting viruses) that's very straightforward, simple and fast," said Mark Hamblin, a doctorate student in electrical engineering and the lead author of the paper. "It's not necessarily the discovery of the century, but it will definitely aid and contribute in the field overall."