Microfluidics gets a grant

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have received a $1.26 million grant, as part of a push to develop minute, fluid-based systems that could detect minuscule quantities of airborne pathogens.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have received a three-year, $1.26 million grant, as part of a push to develop minute, fluid-based systems that could be used to safely detect minuscule quantities of airborne pathogens, analyse blood in real time and inconspicuously monitor the safety of food and water.

The grant, to a Penn team led by Haim H. Bau, professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics, comes from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration, which is interested in furthering the development of such microfluidic devices. Microfluidic systems are intriguing to the military and others because they would allow for real-time, inexpensive testing of samples, in some cases continuously and remotely, without a need for skilled personnel.

Microfluidic systems consist of minute conduits fabricated in silicon, ceramics, plastics or other suitable materials. The conduits range from 100 micrometers – about the thickness of a human hair – to a millimetre in size. Often non-mechanical means are used to circulate and mix reagents in these devices.

Bau and Penn colleagues Irwin M. Chaiken, research professor of medicine and rheumatology, and Howard H. Hu, associate professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics, will model the transport of liquids, particles, macromolecules and cells in microconduits and study their effect on biological interactions. The fluids and particles will be driven and stirred by electrical and magnetic forces.

In order to test their ideas, the team will fabricate prototypes with low-temperature co-fired ceramic tapes. In a prior DARPA-supported effort, a Penn team demonstrated the applicability of the ceramic tape technology for the fabrication of microfluidic systems.

‘These tapes allow one to fabricate devices and systems rapidly and inexpensively,’ Bau said. ‘We can literally go from a design to a prototype in a matter of days.’