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What is microfluidics?

Microfluidics deals with miniaturized fluid handling devices - networks of small channels where at least one dimension typically is in the range of 10 − 500 µm. These kind of devices are also often referred to as lab-on-a chip (LOC) devices or micro total analysis systems (µTAS), which emphasizes the unique possibilities to accomplish laboratory tasks and analysis in a miniaturized format.

Microfluidic devices have been shown to be suitable for a variety of applications, in particular within biochemistry and biology. Potential applications for microfluidics in biochemistry includes miniaturized analytical systems for DNA sequencing, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), electrophoresis, DNA separation, enzymatic assays and immunoassays. Microfluidic systems have also shown to be of interest for applications in cell biology, such as cell counting, cell sorting, cell culture, flow cytometry-like techniques, the exposure of cells to chemical gradients, and for the analysis of single cells, by controlling the cellular microenvironment. The possibility to control the microenvironment temporally and spatially, opens up for new exciting experiments in, e.g., cell biology.

Initially microfluidic devices were fabricated using technology from the microelectronics industry, but today there are techniques specifically developed for the production of microfluidic systems, which has become a research field on its own. A popular technique for fabricating microfluidic devices is soft lithography, where different structures are molded in an elastomer from a lithographic master. Poly(dimethylsiloxane), PDMS, is a silicone elastomer that is commonly used for this purpose. Microfluidic systems fabricated in PDMS have the advantage of being transparent, thus they are easily combined with optical microscopy. Miniaturization of devices offers a number of more or less obvious advantages, such as requiring small volumes of solvent, sample (e.g., cells), and reagents, portability, low power consumption, versatility in design, potential for parallel operation and for integration with other miniaturized devices.

However, shrinking macroscale devices might be counterproductive. On the microscale other physical phenomena than we are used to from our everyday experience dominate. Here viscous forces dominate over inertial forces, flows are purely laminar (i.e., turbulence is non-existent), surface tension can be a considerable force, diffusion is the basic mechanism for mixing, evaporation is an issue on open liquid surfaces, and the devices usually have extremely high surface area to volume ratios. By integrating knowledge of these effects in the design of microfluidic devices it is possible to perform experiments not possible on the macroscale.

More information

Read more about microfluidics in Emma Eriksson's doctoral thesis

Page Manager: Måns Henningson|Last update: 5/4/2016

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