Everything You Need to Know about Adhesive Converting

What are Microfluidics? A Complete Beginner's Guide to Understanding

Posted by Sue Chambers Mar 9, 2020 1:30:17 PM

We wonder at the big things of the world like towering mountain peaks or the Grand Canyon. As we take moments to sit in awe, we rarely recognize the engineering feats that allow us to live comfortable lives. 

For example, have you ever wondered exactly how masking tape works? How does duct tape adhere so tenaciously to everything? 

The study of microfluidics contributes greatly to adhesives and many other fields that affect our daily lives. It's been used in the healthcare field, in cosmetics, and even in national defense. 

Microfluidics is a field worth understanding, even at a glance, to better understand how parts of our world work. 

What Is Microfluidics? 

So, what is microfluidics? It is the science of fluids on the micro-and nanometer scale. To understand how small “micro” is, think about this: typical bacteria is 0.2 to 2.0 micrometers in diameter.

Microscale refers to work done at a scale of less than 1 millimeter. There are 1,000 micrometers in 1 millimeter. 

So microfluidics is the science of fluids done on a scale around one one-thousandth of a millimeter. 

Engineers and scientists will refer to microfluidics as a subcategory of fluid mechanics. However, microfluidics runs at a much smaller scale than regular fluid mechanics. 

Generally speaking, engineers refer to fluid mechanics as microfluidics when one of the length scales falls into the micrometer range. 

Flow Differences

Fluid behaves differently on the micro-scale. Fluid engineers use two different terms to refer to the way fluid flows: turbulent and laminar

A fluid typically flows in a turbulent way. When the fluid begins to go through a closed channel, like a pipe, the fluid will swirl around. 

However, in the micro-scale, fluid behaves differently. It does not flow turbulently, swirling around. 

Instead, the fluid flows parallel, where the particles flow side by side. Fluid engineers refer to this as laminar. Laminar flow rarely occurs in normal fluid flow. 

Think about a river. When water moves down the river, it looks turbulent, with currents and eddies evident to the visible eye. 

On the micro-scale, that fluid will flow smoothly, with all parts running parallel. We do not typically see the turbulent flow on the micro-scale.

Surface Tension

Surface tension differs in micro-scale for fluids as well. The fundamental laws of fluid mechanics still apply to microfluidics. However, engineers and scientists may neglect to factor in the effects of fluid turbulence and gravity on a single droplet of liquid instead of larger quantities. 

Scientists still use the same equations when working with microfluidic systems. They just use simplified versions of the same equations. As a result, the field of microfluidics has become quite attractive. 

Why Study Microfluidics? 

Microfluidics really began to take off in the early 1990s and has grown exponentially since then. Life science research and biotechnologies, in particular, find it attractive for a number of reasons: 

  • Size: When you're working with microfluidics, you do not need big samples. This means microfluidics requires fewer samples to work with to make the same discoveries. Scientists can do experiments on a small scale and not waste samples. 
  • Time: Because you're working with small samples, reactions happen more quickly. As a result, microfluidics shortens the time of experiments, and you can see results more quickly. 
  • Cost: Microfluidics cost less because scientists use fewer samples and take less time to complete experiments. 
  • Precision:  Scientists improve the precision of experiments because they're already working with such precise measurements. If they can make things happen at this level, then they'll have precise results and also know how to make the same experiment happen accurately at a larger scale. 
  • Limits: Microfluidic experiments lead to a lower limit of detection. Scientists can detect changes at a much lower limit than when working in a larger setting. 
  • Multiple Analyses: You can run multiple analyses at the same time with microfluidics. You're using less space and material, and as a result, you can conduct several analyses at the same time.

How Do Microfluidics Work?

Microfluidics requires precise fluid control under small volumes and space. This means you're dealing with volumes of liquid at a measurement of one-millionth of a liter (known as a microliter) or one-billionth of a liter (known as a nanoliter). If you're working with size, you're looking at millimeters or micrometers. 

This means scientists are performing experiments on a tiny scale. They need special tools such as microfluidic pumps or microfluidic valves to do their work.

The microfluidic pumps will supply fluids continuously. Scientists use them to dose liquids. Microfluidic valves inject precise volumes of samples. 

How is Microfluidics Used? 

Think of microfluidics like computers. In the 1960s, a computer took up a room. Now you can carry the same power in your hand with your smartphone. 

This is microfluidics. 

Scientists and engineers describe microfluidics as a lab on a chip or an organ on a chip type technology. A microfluidic chip certainly illustrates what incredible benefits microfluidics have brought to science. But the study of microfluidic work has resulted in so much more in addition to an organ on a chip.

For example, the world of cosmetics has benefited greatly with emulsions and formulations. In pharmaceuticals, doctors have been able to discover drugs because of microfluidics. 

The healthcare industry alone has seen revolutionary inventions because of microfluidics. For example, diabetic strips and surgical tape exist because of this field. 

Furthermore, medical adhesive advancements have led to innovative work with blood glucose strips and diagnostics devices.

The study of chemistry has benefitted greatly from microfluidics as well with growth in studies of flow synthesis and stoichiometry. 

If you've ever heard of 3D printing, you can thank the field of microfluidics. Both cell culture and 3D printing have resulted from this innovative field. 

In the field of energy, microfluidics allows engineers to study enhanced oil recovery, also known as EOR. In oil fields, engineers need to extract crude oil from the ground. This practice is called enhanced oil recovery. 

Microfluidics allows engineers to study how fluid flows and to create more efficient ways to extract oil. 

Microfluidics plays a role in adhesive solutions. The diagnostic microfluidic tape developed through microfluidic research is pressure-sensitive tape. Companies use it to create diabetic test strips and advanced medical tape.

The science behind adhesion, in general, goes back to microfluidics. Thus we can thank microfluidics every day for simple adhesive materials. Even something as simple as masking tape results from this science.

What is a Micro Fluidic Chip? 

A microfluidic chip is a chip with molded and engraved microchannels. Picture a small chip with tiny channels. These microfluidics channels have several holes of different dimensions where an individual can inject and evacuate microfluid. 

Scientists will direct, mix, separate, or manipulate the fluids to create effects throughout the systems. Scientists fashion microfluidic chips with precise design to achieve their stated goals. They can detect pathogens and analyze DNA because of microfluidics. 

Microchannels require specific systems for a scientist to manage the fluids in such tiny channels. Imagine larger channels and fluid movement. Engineers would need pumps and valves.

Microfluidic chips are not different. They require quake valves and pressure controllers specific to microfluidics. Entire industries have dedicated themselves to producing microfluidic chips as well as the mechanics that make them work. 

The world of microfluidic chips has led to a couple of different types of chips: lab-on-a-chip and organ-on-a-chip. 

Lab on a Chip

Picture a full-scale lab, where all experiments take place with normal-sized beakers and tubs. A scientist only has so much room to work. 

A lab-on-a-chip allows a scientist to work on a micro or miniaturized scale. As a result, the scientist can analyze several experiments at once.

Scientists can use several high-resolution lab techniques like synthesis and analysis of chemicals that fit on a chip. They can analyze fluid testing that fits on a chip. 

At this scale, scientists can do so much more. They can generate samples on location rather than moving them to a bigger lab. They can control the movement and interaction of samples more easily at this scale as well. The reactions are more potent, and scientists have less chemical waste at this scale. 

If a scientist is working with a dangerous chemical, he reduces exposure because he is working with such a small amount of that same chemical. So instead of exposing himself to a liter of a chemical, he is exposing himself to a drop. 

Organs on Chips

Scientists have taken microfluidics to another level with organs on a chip. They've developed a 3-dimensional cell culture on a microdevice. This device attempts to reproduce the major functions of a living organ, but on a computer chip. 

Scientists claim that these microfluidic devices work more efficiently than traditional cell culture techniques. The organ-on-a-chip can mimic microenvironments as well as the function of the organ. 

So a scientist can research human physiology for a specific organ while testing advancements for diseases on that model. 

Microfluidics and microfabrication technology allow scientists to recreate the functions of a living organism on a small scale. We can find models like a heart on a chip, a liver on a chip, a tumor on a chip, and even multiple organs on one chip. 

How Did We Get Here? 

Microfluidics was once an idea, but it has emerged as its own field. Complete labs dedicated to microfluidics exist throughout the world. Microfluidics does more than just affect healthcare. It influences chemical synthesis, biological analysis, optics, and even information technology. 

The 50s: Inkjet and Transistors

To fully appreciate what microfluidics does now and will do in the future, we need to take a step back to when it began. In the 1950s, the first transistor resulted from microfluidics and microtechnology. Inkjet printhead technology also came about at this time as scientists figured out ways to get tiny tubes to transport ink. 

The 60s: Mini Computers

The 1960s saw engineers miniaturizing computers for space exploration. Scientists developed the first integrated circuits and microprocessors at this time. Photolithography led to miniaturizing thousands of transistors on small semiconductor wafers. 

These technologies led to pressure sensor production. 

The 70s: Gas Chromatograph

In the late 1970s, engineers and scientists developed the first miniaturized gas chromatograph. It contained mechanical micro-elements integrated on a silicon wafer. Gas chromatograph allows scientists to analyze air pollutants, alcohol in blood, essential oils, and food products.

The 80s: Pressure Sensors and Printheads

MEMS came out in the 1980s which led to the development of pressure sensors and printheads. By the end of the 1980s, scientists had developed microvalves and micro-pumps for microfluidics. Scientists and engineers continued to develop the field by focusing on silicon-based analysis systems as opposed to glass systems that required heavy industry facilities. 

The 90s: Genomics and Chemical Warfare

The mid-190s led to more tools for genomics research. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, a military agency, began to support microfluidics research because of its usefulness in detecting portable biological and chemical warfare agents. 

As a result of this support, scientists were able to launch a research area that focused on sensor function in a full lab analysis on a single microfluidic chip. 

In the late 90s scientists and manufacturers developed and produced cheaper microfluidic devices by using polymer moldings rather than silicone. 

The Twenty-First Century: More Research

The twenty-first century has allowed scientists to reap the harvest of all the seeds planted by their predecessors in previous decades.

Because of the development done in the 1900s, scientists could focus on more research for less cost in the 2000s. They have micro-labs and micro-chips. Young scientists can even focus on microfluidics in school now. 

Today multiple companies produce micro-pumps, mixers, microvalves, and other devices for microfluidic work. Because of the large demand, costs have dropped. Thus a larger number of labs can conduct microfluidic research because of less costly devices and materials. 

Our Part

Strouse creates microfluidic devices. We work with advanced material for microfluidic devices. In fact, Strouse is the 3M preferred converter of 3M Medical Materials and Technologies. 

This means we now only understand microfluidics, but we create the devices that work with them. 

Our company produces porous membranes used for filtration, films and specialty materials, bioassay tapes, and so much more. We've made ourselves the leaders in the creation of biofluidic devices. 

Small Devices, Big Results

Bigger is not always better. The science and ideas behind microfluidics proves that small technology can result in big advances. Because of microfluidics, we have pressure sensors, diabetic test strips, and adhesive options galore. 

For all of your adhesive needs, contact us

Sue Chambers

Written by Sue Chambers

President and CEO of Strouse