Pre-programmed microfluidic systems offer new control capabilities

New breakthrough could lead to microfluidic devices that are more portable, scalable.

Microfluidic systems have the power to revolutionize medicine, energy, electronics and even space exploration. But the sheer size of the external equipment required for controlling these quarter-sized devices has limited their use in portable, wearable technologies.

Now Northwestern University researchers are pushing microfluidics closer to reaching its true potential.

In this schematic, the wavy lines depict a computer simulation of the fluid flow through a single microfluidic channel. Image Courtesy : Northwestern University.

In a recent study, the researchers discovered how to pre-program the devices’ network structures in a way that controls how fluids flow and mix throughout the micropipes. The result? A step toward smartly designed microfluidic systems that behave like a computer chip without relying on external components.

“Current microfluidic technology often requires a desktop full of equipment to operate something the size of a quarter,” said Northwestern’s Adilson Motter, senior author of the study. “We took the control that’s provided by external systems and built it into the device’s structure.”

The study was published today (Oct. 23) in the journal Nature. Motter is the Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Physics at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Daniel Case, a graduate student in Motter’s lab, is the paper’s first author. The Northwestern team worked with collaborators at St. Louis University and the University of Normandy in France.

Adilson E. Motter

Microfluidic systems are miniaturized chemical labs formed by a network of pipes — each of which is the width of a strand of hair. These devices can be used for applications ranging from conducting small-scale experiments to performing complex medical diagnostics, drug delivery and health monitoring

The problem is that — in order to perform complicated tests and experiments — multiple fluids need to flow, mix, react, separate and switch directions all within these tiny networks. Each activity requires a pressure pump, and each pump is controlled by an external device. Researchers have struggled for the past few decades, trying — and often failing — to coax fluids to move through these networks autonomously, without needing external equipment.

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