April 1, 2011 (Vol. 31, No. 7)
Gisela Lin, Ph.D.
UCI-Based Group Aids Transition from Prototype to Mass-Produced Commercial Product
The term “micro total analysis system” (microTAS) was first introduced in 1990 when chip-level components were envisioned to carry out chemical analyses in miniaturized volumes (usually in the microliter–picoliter range) with high sensitivities and short reaction times (minutes versus hours or days). Since then the field of microfluidics has not stopped growing, with innovative components and platforms expanding into more applications in biology, medicine, pharmaceuticals, and food and environmental monitoring.
The field has benefited tremendously from the participation of researchers from a broad spectrum of disciplines including chemists, biologists, material scientists, physicists, and chemical, mechanical, electrical, and biomedical engineers. In addition, numerous large corporations have set up R&D divisions to explore commercialization opportunities in microfluidics.
Despite significant efforts, very few microTASs have been developed that are capable of performing entire processes from sample input to sample preparation to sample detection. Most of the components developed have been for a singular function (e.g., pumps, separation, detection).
In many practical applications such as drug discovery and genetic screening, a miniature total analysis system could be extremely beneficial in terms of consumable reduction and faster reaction times. The roadblock to the development of such microfluidic systems may be rooted in the decentralized, somewhat arbitrary genesis of this field.
The Micro/Nano Fluidics Fundamentals Focus Center (MF3) was formed in 2006 by Abraham Lee, Ph.D., biomedical engineering professor at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Dr. Lee is now also director of the Center.
Prior to forming MF3, Dr. Lee noticed that although a number of researchers and engineers were coming up with innovative microfluidic devices, fabrication strategies, and technologies in their labs, these devices were almost always incompatible with standard manufacturing techniques because the researchers tended not to collaborate with one another or with industry.
The best approach to advancing the field and designing better, manufacturable microfluidic devices would be through the creation of a collaborative center focused on microfluidic-based technology development, Dr. Lee reasoned.
Key to this collaborative center was the early involvement of industrial partners with real-world needs, applications, and commercial manufacturing expertise. With microfluidic components realized in standard manufacturing processes, integration of components would be much more straightforward (especially if the components were fabricated in the same process). This would, in turn, facilitate higher levels of on-chip functionality such that a total analysis system would be possible.
MF3 is headquartered at UCI and brings together 20 faculty members from 12 universities nationwide. In addition to UCI, these universities include the University of California Berkeley, Stanford University, University of Wisconsin Madison, University of Minnesota, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Cincinnati, University of Maryland College Park, Purdue University, University of Florida, and Texas A&M University.
The center was established with support from DARPA as part of its N/MEMS S&T Fundamentals program. Additional significant support for MF3 research is provided by 11 industrial or other government partners: Douglas Scientific, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, IDEX Health & Science, Shrink Nanotechnologies, ESI Group, Sierra Proto Express, Symbient Product Development, Microfluidic Innovations, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, NASA Ames, and BIOCOM.
The center is currently funded by DARPA and MF3 partners in the amount of $12.5 million over six years. Together, these institutions aim to advance the basic science and applications of the micro/nanofluidics field and transition this technology out of academic laboratories and into the hands of both civilian and military end users.
MF3 is a focused micro/nanofluidics community where interdisciplinary groups share ideas, expertise, and tools. In this respect MF3 is not unique—there have been a growing number of nanotechnology/microfluidics centers springing up around the world. However, what sets MF3 apart from other centers is that the faculty members actively collaborate with commercial partners in an attempt to speed the transition from the design stage to commercialization.
Early in the process, the commercial partners are involved in the design and material selection to implement new devices in fabrication processes that are favorable for high-volume production. Hot embossing of thermoplastics, injection molding, and printing are all target processes for the micro/nanofluidic components and platforms being developed at MF3. Furthermore, printed circuit board processing, a commodity in the electronics field, is also a target process and is currently being integrated with microfluidic technologies to create portable, highly functional platforms.
A prime example of this type of collaboration is the relationship MF3 has developed with Douglas Scientific, one of the first industrial members of MF3. Douglas Scientific’s tape-based process is amenable to manufacturing micro/nanofluidic chips due to its inherent ability to seal channels and wells that could be embossed in tape-based thermoplastics like polypropylene. Reagents could be dispensed and pre-packaged in reservoirs prior to sealing as well.
To this end, microfluidic devices at MF3 have either been transitioned or directly implemented in hot embossed thermoplastics with the goal of ultimately fabricating these devices in tape-based systems. To date, microfluidic pumps, wells, channels, and nozzles have been demonstrated in hot embossed plastics that can be transitioned to tape-based processes.
Much like how integrated circuits revolutionized the way we live and communicate, a totally integrated microfluidic chip would likely create applications and functions that we cannot begin to imagine today. In healthcare, MF3 is working toward creating a new class of low-cost, manufacturable, highly functional micro/nanofluidic platforms that directly interact with the human body in ways not currently possible, leading to future consumer products such as point-of-care diagnostic devices for detecting disease.
The center is also working to create advanced health-monitoring devices that provide patients continuous and proactive assistance in managing their health via the automated collection of fluid samples such as water or blood, or the separation and detection of biological components such as cells, proteins, or DNA and chemicals such as toxins or pollutants.
By creating an academic-industry-government community focused on micro/nanofluidic advancement, the MF3 Center is closing the gap that traditionally exists between these entities in order to streamline the path from laboratory prototype to low-cost, mass-produced product that can be readily used.
Gisela Lin, Ph.D. ([email protected]), is the MF3 Center development manager, University of California, Irvine.