UW News

February 11, 2010

Microfluidics in C minor

UW News

If they gave Academy Awards for the best science music video, the UW would be a serious contender. Bioengineer Albert Folch used music to control the movement of a lab instrument, filmed it through a microscope, and posted the footage on YouTube. The results are mesmerizing, and offer a new way to view the science of microfluidics.

Folch, an associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering, does research in a field that tries to shrink processes that involve liquids down to tiny scales. The goal is to build cheaper and more portable medical tests.

In the past few years he has begun collecting some of his favorite experiment images (read the UWeek article here). This is his first foray into video.

“We were interested in studying the dynamic behavior of these microscopic valves, and we wanted to see how they respond to different frequencies,” Folch said. “Of course, the first thing you think of is music.”

Well, at least that’s the first thing you think of if you’re a classical music fan who owns more than a thousand CDs, as Folch does. He and his students ended up creating a scientific version of Disney’s Fantasia.

The video on the right shows a device about half the width of a fingernail. The seven tiny nozzles along the bottom have been set to open when the volume of music in a given frequency range passes a certain threshold. Just for fun, Folch used part of a recording of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra to control the nozzles. He says he chose this piece because it’s not often heard in this country and has a dynamic range that he thought would work well for his (lab) instruments.

Peixian Liu, a freshman who hopes to major in bioengineering, designed the system. When she wanted to volunteer in a lab last fall, Folch was the first faculty member she approached.

“I didn’t know anything about microfluidics,” Liu said, “but when I saw the Web page I was immediately attracted to the beautiful images.”

With the help of Folch and bioengineering graduate student Anthony Au, Liu learned to build a tiny two-layered device that does not leak and responds to sound commands.

“When I think back to when I started, I didn’t know I could learn so much,” Liu said. She said she hopes her videos may inspire others to get involved in the research.

Folch is now investigating the valves’ behavior in response to simpler sounds, as a possible way to test microfluidic devices.

More videos with music are posted online here. Folch’s images are available online here, and prints will be on display in Meany Hall until the fall.