Joined: 03 Oct 2005
|Posted: Tue Feb 14, 2006 4:51 pm Post subject: DTI to Highlight the Impact of Microfluidics on Industry
|Global Watch Service Magazine Reports on DTI Promotion to Highlight the Revolutionising Impact of Microfluidics on Industry
Microfluidics – the generic technology of manipulating fluids on a chip – might be in its infancy but it is fast emerging as a revolutionising force in many industries. Enabling the development of smart products at low cost, microfluidics is opening up a vast array of opportunities – and the DTI Global Watch Service is helping UK companies identify how they can benefit.
Microfluidics takes advantage of the different properties exhibited by liquids and gases at the microscale to create previously unobtainable functionality in devices with dimensions of just a few millimetres or where microlitre-scale volumes are involved. While its greatest commercial impact so far has been in the life sciences, where sophisticated fluid handling is key to high-throughput, low-cost assays, microfluidics is now making its way into other applications as new microscale fabrication methods and engineering capabilities enable greater flexibility and complexity.
The increased sensitivity and efficiency of products containing microfluidic components such as pumps, valves, mixers and sensors is attracting attention in fields as diverse as agriculture, chemistry, forensics, industrial automation, medicine and space. The textiles industry has already developed self-healing polymers incorporating microcapsules that automatically break open to repair cracks. The energy sector, meanwhile, is taking note of microfluidics-enabled fuel cells which capitalise on the fact that fuels flowing in small channels don’t mix.
While many innovative concepts like these are still under investigation, some, particularly high-value healthcare applications like glucose monitoring, are already paying their way. The microfluidics device market is currently estimated at £1.2 billion globally, but the consensus is that to achieve its predicted 300 percent growth in the next five years many attitudinal and technological barriers will have to be overcome.
To help European industry rise to these challenges, the Liquid Handling Competence Centre (LICOM) was set up in 2000, representing the combined expertise of four renowned institutes including the UK’s Cranfield Biotechnology Centre. As well as providing a knowledge base and enabling technology transfer, LICOM has supported nearly 140 collaborative projects. These have already led to three spin-out companies and four microfluidics-related product launches – a personal microarrayer, a blood glucose monitor, an air flow sensor and a differential pressure sensor.
The microarrayer, TopSpot, was developed in response to the need for high-throughput analysis of samples in the pharmaceuticals, fine chemical and food industries. The instrument is the first to be able to produce 5,000 biochips a day, each containing about 1,000 ‘dots’, each sensitive to a different substance. The blood glucose monitoring system uses much smaller blood volumes than conventional devices and is the first to make home testing a seamless, one-stop procedure.
According to LICOM, widespread development of such intelligent, user-friendly products will require much more research, in particular to further develop integrated technologies incorporating polymer, glass, silicon and metals. The multidisciplinary nature – and cost – of such work will require continued financial support for industry if the technology is to be effectively exploited. Appreciating that making microfluidics mainstream is as much about information and familiarity as technology and integration, the LICOM consortium plans to maintain its web portal, including a comprehensive database of technologies and applications, beyond the project’s formal end.
Concerted effort to engage UK industry is going to be needed to capitalise on the benefits of microfluidics. The DTI Global Watch Service is contributing through a series of missions involving its International Technology Promoters and involvement with R&D initiatives such as LICOM.
A DTI Global Watch Mission to Germany and the Netherlands will investigate microfluidics for the production and delivery of personal care, household and pharmaceutical products, an area generating concepts such as smart packaging and novel cosmetics. ‘The UK has some successful pioneers in this field such as Q Chip and Oxonica,’ says DTI International Technology Promoter Nicki Smoker, ‘but Germany and the Netherlands are making far greater strides.’
State-of-the-art microfluidics will be among the technologies studied during a mission looking at biosensing technologies for medical and homeland security applications, which is going to the US this month. ‘Microfluidics is very topical in medical diagnostics where 80 percent of the commercial drive is to miniaturise,’ says DTI International Technology Promoter Pete Kitchin. ‘Biosensors for virtually any application will contain microfluidics to make them portable and applicable in situ.’
This future ubiquity is something manufacturing specialist and DTI International Technology Promoter Cliff Young, who will investigate microfluidics in the US as part of a water quality monitoring mission later this year, is keen to stress. ‘Microfluidics has come in from chemistry and biotechnology, but it is going to have a major impact on engineering – anywhere that systems are continually being downsized. If you think microfluidics might have an application in your area you need to find out more about it – now.’
‘It is fundamental that UK industry examines the potential of microfluidic technologies because they are going to make many current products obsolete’, said Nicki Smoker, DTI International Technology Promoter.
Note: This article has been reprinted from Global Watch, the monthly magazine of the DTI Global Watch Service.
For further information on activities of the Service, please visit www.globalwatchservice.com.
This story was posted on 9 February 2006.