What microfluidics is?

Microfluidics is the science of manipulating and controlling fluids, usually in the range of microliters (10-6) to picoliters (10-12), in networks of channels with dimensions from tens to hundreds of micrometers. This discipline takes its origins in the early 1990’s and has grown exponentially. It is viewed as an essential tool for life science research or in a larger way in biotechnologies.

It is a very attractive technology for both academic researchers and industrial groups since it considerably:

Furthermore, through the miniaturization and automation made possible by microfluidics and nanofluidics, one may:

  • Improve the precision of experiments
  • Lower limits of detection
  • Run multiple analyses simultaneously

How microfludics works?

Microfluidics deals with very precise fluid control, under small volumes and space, micro meaning one of the following features:

  • Small volumes (µL, nL, pL, fL)
  • Small size (mm, µm)
  • Low energy consumption

Figure 1: Example of a microfluidic chip with channels thinner than 1 mm

Active microfluidics refers to fluid handling made by active components as microfluidic pumps or microfluidic valves. Microfluidic pumps supply fluids in a continuous way or are used for dosing whereas the microfluidic valves can inject precise volumes of sample or buffer.

Why microfludics makes big difference?

Due to the low volumes required, microfluidic technologies represent a promising alternative to conventional laboratory techniques. They allow complete laboratory protocols on a single chip of few square centimeters. Figure 2 shows the main advantages of using microfluidics instead of conventional laboratory assays for a given experiment (Ultra-high throughput screening of a typical enzyme).

Figure 2: Comparison using traditional methods and in microfluidic emulsions

Microfluidics is often used and described in “lab on a chip” and “organ on a chip” technology. But microfluidics can be applied to a wide range of applications, such as:

  • Cosmetics (emulsions & formulations)
  • Pharmaceuticals (drug discovery)
  • Health (personalized medicine & diagnosis)
  • Chemistry (flow synthesis & stoichiometry)
  • Biology (cell culture and 3D printing)
  • Energy (EOR models plasma confinement)

Figure 3: Photograph of a high-throughput screening experiment with microfluidics

To better appreciate the impact of microfluidics, one can make an analogy with the evolution of the computers. In the 60’s, one needed an entire room to run a computer. Since then, every component has been reduced in size and laptop products appeared. Now a simple smartphone is more powerful than any computer built before. This has reduced prices, and is much more user friendly. It’s the same with microfluidics!