Hot Opportunities in Microfluidics for MEs

May 30, 2018

by Mark Crawford ASME.org

Microfluidics is a rapidly growing engineering field that also requires a working knowledge of physics, biology, and chemistry. It has become a fundamental platform technology for the testing and production of liquids, particles, fibers, and the encapsulation of biological materials.

Rapid advances in the field are driven by the point-of-care diagnostics boom for health care, which research firm Research and Markets expects to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 19 percent through 2023.

“Exciting new applications are developed every year,” says Faisal Shaikh, an associateprofessor in the Department of Physics and Chemistry at the Milwaukee School of Engineering in Milwaukee, WI. “It can be simple and commonplace as inkjet print heads or as complex as the 3D-printing of organs.”

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There is a vast amount of untapped potential for growth and applications of microfluidics, with the real potential to revolutionize several industries, especially healthcare.Prof. Faisal Shaikh, Milwaukee School of Engineering

microfluidic chip with colors representing different chemical treatments that would be delivered to cells inside each chamber. Image: NIST

Microfluidics projects typically depend on cross-disciplinary teams, usually mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineers and biotechnologists. “Collaborations are key to the success of these hybrid projects and provide excellent learning and leadership opportunities for MEs,” Shaikh says.

Mechanical engineers are required for their expertise in product design, including material choices, fabrication methods, device design simulation, operation, optimization of every aspect of design and operation, and testing and validation.

MEs interested in working in microfluidics will find the following capabilities helpful:

  • Good communication and collaboration/teamwork skills
  • Good leadership skills
  • Innovative mindset and proactive work ethic
  • Entrepreneurial mindset
  • Knowledge of good manufacturing practices
  • Modeling/simulation skills
  • Material characterization skills
  • Advanced fluid dynamics knowledge

Key Research Areas

Biotechnological microfluidic applications include the diagnosis, detection, and analysis of biological molecules or cells. Mechanical engineers who want to be involved in designing healthcare innovations will be interested in lab-on-a-chip devices (LOCs) and micro-electro-mechanical-systems (MEMS), both of which are fast-paced fields.

Another key research area is paper microfluidics, which uses patterned paper that is treated at specific sections as the substrate for point-of-care-diagnosis devices.

“The cost savings and the simplicity of use with these devices is mind-blowing,” Shaikh says. “One of the real-world applications for this technique is rapid and inexpensive disease diagnosis in developing countries, particularly where access to healthcare is limited.”

Organ-on-a-chip devices, another hot research area, allow cell cultures and constructs to be studied within a “lab-on-a-chip” device that mimics the microenvironments inside the human body. This technology can replace animal testing for new pharmaceutical drug development and shorten the process of drug development by several years. Pharmaceutical companies are excited and investigating the effectiveness of these devices.

Cutting Edge Research

One of the most interesting projects Shaikh has undertaken is the fabrication of a lab-on-a-chip device for biological analysis. The fabrication process involved the same steps used in silicon microfabrication, including the deposition of different metal patterns and the addition of a microfabricated glass microchannel, followed by making microscopic electrical connections on these chips.

“The variety of methods and processes used in the fabrication of these devices was a great learning experience,” adds Shaikh. “There were technical and engineering challenges at every stage of fabrication. For example, initially the patterned metals came off the chip surface when it was used, so thicker layers of the metal and other metals were employed to solve this issue.”

Another interesting area of research is in-air microfluidics. In this new chip-free platform technology, liquid microjets react chemically or physically in the air to form encapsulated droplets, particles, or fibers, which can then be direct-deposited onto a substrate for the 3D-printing of multiscale modular materials in one step.

Professional Development and Training

Unfortunately, not many short courses in microfluidics are available to professional engineers. “There seems to be more industrial activity around microfluidics inEurope than in the U.S.,” Shaikh says. “Therefore, more training or collaboration opportunities may be available with European partners.”

Any training should include a significant hands-on component, which could include modules on microfluidic device design, cleanroom fabrication (soft lithography, hot embossing, micro-milling), and testing.

“There is a vast amount of untapped potential for growth and applications of microfluidics, with the real potential to revolutionize several industries, especially in healthcare,” Shaikh says. “I believe that big changes are coming in the near future.”

Mark Crawford is an independent writer.

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