The Dream of a “Lab-On-a-Chip” Closer to Reality

June 24, 2019

After several years of collaboration, researchers at IBM Research, Zurich, and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology’s Microfluidic Technologies Laboratory led by Professor Moran Bercovici, presented a new concept for manipulating liquids in small scales, bringing us closer to the implementation of “labs on chips.”

The miniaturization of transistors — from vacuum-tubes to microchips — has enabled the transformation of computers from being big machines that once filled entire rooms to the pocket-sized devices we know today. Similarly, the field of lab-on-a-chip seeks to revolutionize chemical and biological analysis by reducing large scale laboratories to the size of a microfluidic chip.

Although the concept of a lab-on-a-chip was suggested more than 30 years ago, existing microfluidic systems have yet to realize that vision. One reason for this is that current microfluidic chips are comprised of channels that have been carved into rigid substrates, such as polymers or glass. This manufacturing process allows implementation of only a very specific function for which it was designed, and has not led to the versatility and configurability expected and needed from a true lab-on-a-chip system.

But now, researchers have found a way to dynamically configure the flow.
In their new mechanism, “virtual channels” guide the liquid along desired paths that are created using solely electric fields. These flow patterns can be controlled electronically, configured, and re-configured on-demand.

The research team’s work appears in two recent publications in Physical Review Letters and in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“When an electric field acts on charges near a surface, it moves that charge and drags the liquid along with it,” said lead researcher Dr. Federico Paratore, formerly a PhD student at the Technion and now a postdoctoral researcher at the Zurich Research Laboratory. “by having an array of electrodes at the bottom of a microfluidics chamber and controlling their charge we essentially set up an array of ‘conveyor belts’ whose directions and intensities can be controlled electronically.”

The team explained how they could establish a variety of flows and then switch, on demand, from one flow to another.

“Because we are affecting the flow from within, we can create flows that are not achievable with conventional means such as pressure pumps, and that is really exciting,” added co-author Ms. Vesna Bacheva, formerly a master’s student at IBM Research Zurich and now a doctoral candidate at the Technion. “For example, we can mix specific regions without disturbing the liquid around them. Or, alternatively, we can create regions where the liquid remains motionless while there is flow all around them.”

The team strongly believes that this work is the beginning of a new trajectory for the lab-on-a-chip concept, one in which truly configurable systems could be implemented.

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