Innovation

What is… microfluidics?

The first in a new tech explainer series about the technology shaping our world today.

By Hannah Seo — February 3, 2022

The infamous Theranos case might have you believe that microfluidics is a work of Silicon Valley vaporware or science fiction, but there’s a drop (heh) of truth — and real science — behind it. Using tiny amounts of fluid to screen for diseases is not too far off, and the entire science of microfluidics — the study of the behavior and control of fluid on a microscopic scale — holds the promise that one day, the components of lab work can operate with incredible efficiency and precision. And if you’ve purchased an inkjet printer in the past 30 years, you’ve seen it in action. The field is a growing market, too, projected to be worth nearly $58 billion globally by 2028, according to a Verified Market Research report.

Illustration by Eric Chow

How it works

Microfluidics deals in just picoliters of fluid — about 0.001% the size of a raindrop. The magic happens when scientists can manipulate its behavior, by way of microchannels and pumps, to carry out functions like bio-molecular detection. This technology allows scientists to create microfluidic chips or other miniature biotechnology, which use fluids like blood or chemical solutions to detect cells, particles, or perform experiments in microenvironments. Such devices can be made at a lower cost, are more portable, and can operate faster while using fewer materials — with big implications for biomedicine, diagnostics, and other life science applications.  

The a-ha moment 

In the 1970s, scientists created the first “lab-on-a-chip,” a gas chromatographic air analyzer built on a silicon wafer, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the first microvalves and micropumps were developed. Researchers at HP figured out how to place microscopic drops of fluid in precise locations — the principle of inkjet printing — providing a foundation to extend this technology into new domains over the past half century.  

What it’s used for now 

Microfluidics has evolved into several “flavors” of microfluidics, each with their own field of possibility in biotech. Digital microfluidics involves precisely controlling fluids over an array of electrodes; continuous flow microfluidics uses a tiny but steady stream of liquid; paper-based microfluidics uses capillary action to transport small fluids; and microfluidics that use single droplets are all growing subfields. There’s a suite of potential applications like detection devices that can check biological samples for diseases, from COVID-19 to cancer, and for diagnostic tools, or “labs-on-chips,” with the ability to conduct a high volume of tests on a small scale. Today, microfluidics based on inkjet technology is used in drug development and vaccine production. Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (or SERS) based microfluidics identifies molecules by how they scatter light, and can be used to detect contamination in liquid samples like blood, water, or even in soil. Microfluidic tech is also present in tests like glucose strips, which are able to measure blood sugar with just a single drop of blood.  

How it might change the world

Better microfluidics technology means a world where diseases are detected at much faster and more reliable rates, and will lead to individualized, more powerful treatments, cheaper medical tools with higher precision, and less invasive procedures. Microfluidic research and testing will produce a more robust and safer agriculture supply chain and fresher, more flavorful food. It could mean a future where we even 3D print vital organs. The science is not only expanding to multiple fields, but potentially multiple worlds: microfluidic analyzers might one day go off planet aboard future Mars rovers to aid in the search for extraterrestrial life.

 

Learn more about technology and how it shapes the world around us in HP's Innovation Magazine.