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New Integrated Systems in Microfluidics

The University of Hertfordshire’s Microfluidics & Microengineering Research Group produces microfluidics-enabled systems extending from concept, through design to development realisation and testing. There is a subtle balance of science and engineering involved in the research and the group is structured to enable this balance. We spoke to Loïc Coudron, a research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire,  about his current research in microfluidic equipment.

The University of Hertfordshire

One area we specialise in is developing systems where our goal is to collect aerosol samples from the air for downstream analysis. In the work presented at the Global Engage Microfluidics Congress, we focus on using of digital microfluidic droplets to recover collected aerosol particulate in order to benefit from significant sample concentration, enhancing the level of detection beyond what would otherwise be possible.

Improvements in microfluidic equipment

There is still room for improvement in terms of microfluidic equipment. In terms of the microfluidic principle involved, it’s about pushing forward the Electrowetting technology we have been developing over the last 6 years. This is one area we are focusing on at the moment, unusually for a research group we take a holistic view looking at physical principle, ideas, and strategies, and try to bring them to life by optimising the systems and incorporating microfluidics. We achieve this with a specific end application, and potential end-users, in mind.

In terms of microfluidics in general, there are new inventions every day and new techniques, each with associated room for improvement. Electrowetting is a good example of this: what started as an interesting, ‘funny’ physical effect rapidly found very promising applications in lenses, displays and ultimately digital microfluidics within micro total analysis systems.  As well as developing our own inventions we would look to improve and innovate on the body of research work coming out of the community, applying these new techniques to our research projects wherever they offer an improvement over existing approaches.

Breakthroughs in microfluidic devices

Microfluidic breakthroughs are happening in the background already. There are lots of system breakthroughs that have not reached a mainstream audience, but with appropriate levels of engineering and funding being injected into them, more development will yield systems capable of significant breakthroughs. An example of this is the point-of-care lab-on-chip systems. I think this is one area that we consider has the potential for more breakthroughs and the momentum to yield these breakthroughs is growing because it will touch a lot of people, especially with an ageing population.

Given many microfluidic devices and principles are developed by Universities and research institutions, an important component for successful system development and deployment is good communication between the academic researchers and relevant industry. The microfluidic industry still has few truly mature technologies and there are significant benefits to be exploited when breakthrough microfluidic techniques can be tamed and controlled within new devices.

On the electrowetting side of things, there’s a group that’s already testing a diagnostic system applied to a specific population of trained experts using electrowetting systems for point-of-care testing for rubella.  Considering the array of diseases that people die from as a result of lack of point of care testing this breakthrough is significant and could lead to further advances in the field.

There is a lot of potential in the fields of crop protection and food in general. At the moment, I am focusing on bio-detection of airborne biowarfare agents for military purposes. It is very niche in terms of application but we are seeing significant success in the lab. If we continue to succeed in our research and development work it will be a major breakthrough with far-reaching benefits that could be adapted to wider security applications and point of care diagnostics.

My current role

There are huge opportunities in my role. There are always new things happening, so whilst I think it’s very exciting to conduct research in general, microfluidics feels like a very exciting area because you can touch on the boundaries of several disciplines. My research group and specifically my own research includes a combination of biology, engineering, physics and chemistry and there’s always a lot of exciting opportunities in terms of funding, people involved and the applications themselves. It is a really exciting time for microfluidic research.

Since 2012, Dr Loïc Coudron has led the development of electrowetting and DMF in the MMRG. His work includes the realisation of integrated digital microfluidics systems that can push forward the boundaries of in-field biodetection for military, food security or healthcare applications.

If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in our new event, The 4Bio Summit, which will be bringing together experts on lab-on-a-chip microfabrications and the latest microfluidic technologies. Take a look at the agenda here

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