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"Lab-on-a-chip" technology: microfluidics help a serious development in the testing of the quality of the environment

Microfluidics experts, in collaboration with the UK's National Center for Atmospheric Sciences, have announced the development of a new generation of microfluidic-based environmental testing equipment for air quality monitoring

A device for detecting microfluids described in an article in Nature
A device for detecting microfluids described in an article in Nature

Microfluidics are a new and interesting field of research in science and engineering that enable the analysis and control of liquids on a small scale, and lead to the production of smaller, cheaper and stronger devices. With this technology, now known as "laboratory-on-a-chip", it is possible to manufacture complex systems for the analysis and management of chemicals in a microfluidic chip and to interface with, for example, optical and electronic sensing systems.

The team from the National Center, led by Professor Alastair Lewis, is conducting initial trials to assess the feasibility of developing a mobile microfluidic-based environmental testing unit. Today, air quality monitoring methods require collecting air samples at remote sites, and then transporting them to an analytical laboratory for examination using expensive and large gas chromatography devices. The method as a whole is slow and expensive because of this. The current research is aimed at developing a portable and small monitoring system that will be able to examine the air quality and keep the data processing inside it. Such a system will have a significant impact on the speed of response to negative changes in air quality.

"This is an excellent application of our technology," says one of the research directors. “This is exactly what microfluidics do best. They enable the development of smaller but also more powerful systems. Systems, which were previously laboratory-based, will now be able to become portable or even the size of a palm, and at the same time they will be able to have increased accuracy and frequency." For the benefit of this research, the technology company "Dolomite" was required to produce a microfluidic device with a microchannel of incredible length of 7.5 meters on a glass surface with an area of ​​only 10 square centimeters. This is one of the largest devices and the longest channels developed to date by this company (this technology is based on a smaller model). The manufacturing processes for producing microfluidic devices such as these are similar to those used in the electronics industry.

The channels through which the liquid flows and reacts to the materials in its environment are etched into materials such as glass or polymers using similar photolithography methods. Afterwards, the printed templates are arranged, joined together in a very precise way and microscopic nozzles are drilled through them that allow chemicals or gases to enter and exit the device, as needed.

"The big challenge in this research was the unification of such extensive etched glass surfaces," says the lead researcher. "Arranging the surfaces together to ensure that the etched microchannels fit perfectly into each other required a great deal of experience from us and put our professional skills to the real test."

The news from the National Center for Atmospheric Sciences

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