NIST develops magnetic connector

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researcher Javier Atencia has developed a reusable connector for microfluidic systems.

The NIST connector employs a ring magnet with a O-ring gasket on its bottom and a tube in its centre set directly atop the inlet or outlet port of a microfluidic channel embedded in a glass chip. A disc magnet on the underside of the chip holds the first magnet – and its tubing – securely in place.

Unlike traditional approaches to connectors, the NIST magnetic connector is reusable, can be positioned anywhere on the chip and eliminates any possibility of broken bonds that leak, chips cracked during heat curing of the glue or microfluidic devices made useless by excess glue entering the channels.

Additionally, the reliability, flexibility and fast assembly of the NIST connector compares favourably to a recently developed press-fit system (where springs produce the sealing force) but the magnetic connectors cost hundreds of dollars less to build and operate.

NIST researchers have demonstrated the viability of their magnetic connector in a microfluidic device designed to generate liposomes (tiny bubble-shaped membranes that can be used to transport drugs throughout the body).

A solution of lipids suspended in isopropyl alcohol is pumped at a high rate into a microchannel through one inlet and hit with a buffer solution pumped in through four other ports. The convection and diffusion that occurs as the liquid streams mix produces liposomes that exit the microfluidic device through an outlet port. Magnetic connectors at the five inlets and one outlet were removed and reseated numerous times without any visible leakage.

NIST researchers claim that their magnetic connector is suitable for most microfluidic applications, except those dealing with iron-containing (ferro) fluids, superparamagnetic particles (particles so small that their magnetic properties decrease with time and fluctuations in temperature), cells tagged with magnetic particles or high temperatures (greater than 80°C).

The NIST is seeking a patent for the magnetic microfluidic connector. Once the patent application is filed, the technology will be available for licensing.