Project summary & progress

Advanced and versatile PRInting platform for the next generation of active Microfluidic dEvices

Microfluidic devices manipulate tiny amounts of fluid enabling cost-effective, fast, accurate and high throughput analytical assays. Progress in Microfluidics has huge impact in environmental pollution monitoring, biohazard detection and biomedicine, contributing to the development of new tools for drug screening, biological studies, point-of-care diagnostics and personalized medicine. Despite this huge potential, Microfluidics market growth is heavily constrained by the complexity and high prices of the required large-scale off-chip equipment and its operational cost. PRIME will implement and integrate through additive manufacturing technologies smart valves and pumps in a microfluidic chip. Besides inkjet printing will be used to produce new ultra sensitive and selective sensors embedded in the chip and readable with light. The final device will be remotely addressed and read using simple photonic elements that can be integrated in compact, portable and cheap operation&read devices.

PRIME proposes the use of smart light-sensitive materials and additive manufacturing technologies to integrate light-actuated valves and ultra-sensitive and selective sensors in microfluidic devices. The final device will be remotely addressed and read using simple photonic elements integrated in a portable operation & read device. In PRIME, CSIC, Eindhoven University of Technology, Max Planck Institute, Universidad de Zaragoza, BEOnChip and BNN have joined efforts to pursue this technology. During the project, PRIME has developed new light-responsive materials that can be processed through additive manufacturing technologies. These unprecedented types of materials, in combination with the use of advanced fabrication techniques, have enabled the preparation and integration, in a microfluidic chip, of smart valves addressed by light. Modelling of the mechanical response of the printed elements has facilitated the optimized design, in terms of geometry and material parameters, to ensure appropriate microfluidic function. PRIME has also produced new ultra-sensitive and selective sensors embedded in the chip and readable with light. The consortium is working on the effective integration of functional elements and progress towards the demonstration of the feasibility of the technology in real application cases such as in vitro diagnostic (IVD) and Organ-on-Chip (OoC). The aimed final chip is to be remotely addressed and read using simple photonic elements that can be integrated in compact, portable and cheap operation & read devices.

In the course of the project, the PRIME consortium has generated concrete results we aim to exploit towards the effective implementation of this active microfluidics technology—though exploitation in other application fields is also envisioned. In pursuit of the PRIME mission, we recognize the strategic significance of fostering collaboration and establishing licensing agreements with key industry stakeholders. These strategic partnerships will help to accelerate the adoption of our innovations in the market.

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Microfluidics enables handling minimal amounts of fluid, perform complex assays with precious samples and, also very importantly, reduce the assay time, becoming a key enabler in the fields of (bio)chemical analysis and biomedicine. Microfluidics has also been embraced as a new advanced tool for biology and clinical research as well as drug screening. As a result, microfluidics is an expanding area however existing technologies suffer of limitations that heavily limit the global microfluidics market: For example, current systems rely on the use of complex and expensive large-scale off-chip equipment needed to control the fluidic functions. Besides equipment operation generally requires a high degree of specialization limiting their application to highly specialized laboratories.

The implementation of active microfluidic chips, in which fluidic external connections and costly pumps are eliminated by integrating these complex functions in the chip itself, has been attempted in the laboratory by using for example piezoelectric pumps. Sensors have also been incorporated in microfluidic chips by using fluorescent probes. Despite these efforts, the intrinsic small size and complexity of microfluidic devices and the diversity of often incompatible, types of materials and sophisticated processing technologies, makes the integration of all the functional (fluidic and sensing) elements in a monolithic chip difficult, inherently expensive and unfeasible for industrial production. PRIME aims to set the basis of a new technology that could not only make industrialization possible, but also bring smart material properties to the scenario, enabling the monolithic integration of new functional capabilities.

During the first reporting period, several sets of materials have been developed progressing towards the implementation of the PRIME technology. Smart materials with mechanical response have been explored to create elements with a well-defined mechanical response to external stimuli while considering their integration in microfluidic devices. Work in this direction carried out during the first year led us to reach first materials for responsive elements. The influence of the polymer chain nature and molecular weight have been considered to ensure appropriate rheological and mechanical properties required for optimal manufacturing and mechanical response. Processing of these materials as actuators, and their mechanical response characterization have also been carried out. Reversible mechanical response has been generated in the developed materials leading to contractions of more than 10% upon stimulation with response times in the order of tens of seconds. First valve designs have been introduced and numerical modelling has been carried out. First initial actuation experiments on composite systems comprising active and passive materials have been performed being the first steps of integration into the microfluidic chip. Sensing materials and their processing have also been undertaken seeking for a new generation of selective and ultrasensitive nanoparticle based sensors. First sensing materials have been developed together with protocols for their implementation in the chip.

Communication and dissemination of the project and its results has been done through PRIME website, social media, communication to conferences and publications. Regarding IPR and exploitation of results, a first patent application has been filed during June 2020 on active fluidic elements.