UW News

August 22, 2002

Big boom in tiny microfluidics world?

The field of microfluidics, a discipline that deals with movement and control of fluids at the microscopic level, is poised for a boom similar to the microelectronics revolution that transformed computing, according to two UW researchers.

The results will likely be seen in a broad range of areas, including quicker and more efficient research, exponentially faster genome sequencers and a barrage of portable and affordable diagnostic tools, write Deirdre Meldrum and Mark Holl in the Tech.Sight section of last week’s issue of the journal Science.

“The consensus within the microfluidics community is that 2003 will be a breakthrough year for commercialized microfluidic systems,” said Meldrum, professor of electrical engineering and co-director of the UW Microscale Life Sciences Center, a federally funded national Center of Excellence in Genomic Science. “And while we’re not the only ones doing work on this, the UW is definitely one of the hotbeds of activity in microfluidics and microbiology in analytical systems.”

The field has been developing during the past 10 years, added Holl, research assistant professor in electrical engineering. But most of that development, while intense, has been in isolated modules. Now scientists are ready to begin putting the pieces together into systems.

“Systems are starting to emerge, and people are starting to ask more complicated questions,” Holl said. “That’s our bent on it. The fundamental tools are there for doing microfluidics work. Now engineers can provide the context and infrastructure that enables systems integration.”

The idea, according to Meldrum, is to have a bank of specialized modules that can be fitted together like Lego building blocks to create a system, custom-tailored toward a specific job. The new system could then be refined and fine-tuned.

Such systems would combine tiny channels, pumps and storage chambers with electronic and optical devices, actuators and sensors to perform multistep tasks. Potential applications are numerous — process analysis, environmental monitoring, clinical diagnostics, drug discovery, culturing and manipulating cells, protein analysis and DNA sizing and sequencing.

A microfluidics boom would dramatically bring down the cost of such systems and make them accessible to a much wider range of people. Microscale miniaturization is another upside — the end products would be small and highly portable, about the size of a credit card. Health professionals, for instance, could carry a stack of card-size blood analysis devices. In essence, they would have a laboratory in their pocket.

On the research side of things, such devices would automate processes to save time and effort.

“This would make it possible, for example, for researchers, who might sleep on a cot next to their experiment for 72 hours and watch for when a cell buds off so they can put it in a separate container, to focus on other things,” Holl said. “It would increase their ability to do more experiments, to gather more statistics, more numbers. And it frees one up to imagine new experiments.”

Like the computing boom before it, microfluidics will change the world that humans are creating for themselves, the two predict. The field “promises yet another transformation that will be felt by all, though too tiny to be seen.”