Microfluidics specialist Dolomite, based in the UK but with a Charlestown, Mass. office, has been awarded a SMART grant from the UK government to develop a plug-and-play system that will make microfluidics more accessible to a wider market and increase productivity at research laboratories. The launch of this plug-and-play microfluidics system is slated for 2013, and petrochemical research is said to be among its industrial beneficiaries.
The project will involve prototyping a suite of integrated tools that are specifically targeted at microfluidics users in research and education, with the ambition of providing a sophisticated suite of intelligently coordinated capabilities.
The system will incorporate new hardware components such as high-density, tight-alignment microfluidic connectors. There will also be a range of pumps and sensors which will be intelligently controlled by an Android touch-screen control unit.
“These pumps and sensors will be automatically detected by the control unit when plugged in and this will open up a range of experimental set-up options in the user interface,” said Tim Atkins, mechanical engineer at Dolomite. “The aim is to save time in setting up and analyzing complex microfluidic experiments by making the hardware components work together in an intelligent way.”
While the software will not make recommendations to the user regarding the type of pump or valve that should be used for a specific task, Dolomite can offer technical advice. The software will, however, make it easy to collect data and visualize the results of experiments.
The suite will be based around a modern touch-screen interface enabling clear visualization of data and virtual reconfiguration of the connected hardware such as pumps and valves. The connections to microfluidic devices will be designed to be intuitive, building on Dolomite’s existing Multiflux range of microfluidic connectors.
“We believe the scientist should be free to focus on science and not have to worry about finding the right tools for their job. That’s why we will provide researchers with a next generation of plug-and-play microfluidic platforms,” Dolomite CEO Andrew Lovatt explained. “Although we could develop these tools as isolated products, it is only though the support of the UK government that Dolomite can invest in far-reaching product development and enable researchers to move to the next level of productivity.
“Microfluidic systems typically involve from between two and eight pumps with valves and sensors added as required,” Atkins noted. “However, they can be much more complex.” For example, systems in droplet microfluidics are becoming increasingly complex, with the requirement to increase throughput with 64 or 128 junctions in parallel. In this case, more robust, higher-density connectors are required.
Pump types will include pressure, syringe, peristaltic, plus third-party pumps. Valve types will comprise selector valves with up to six ports to enable fluids to be pumped from many different source reservoirs into many different locations. “Sample injection valves for use with precious reagents may also be available,” Atkins added. Sensor types will include pH, pressure, temperature and flow rate.
The ultimate idea of a plug-and-play microfluidic system is that a user can get advanced microfluidic results within hours of opening the box. Typically, it may take a research lab weeks to months to piece together individual components, control them in the required way and resolve connection issues. “Our developments allow scientists to concentrate on making scientific breakthroughs without being held back by practical issues,” Atkins emphasized.