Microfluidics is one of the fields that is experiencing a boom thanks to 3D printing. Due to the need for such delicate design work, a lot of new research is now lab testable. Take for example, how scientists at the University of California are printing state of the art medical microchips with the power to diagnose diseases.
Dino Di Carlo’s UCLA lab is using printers specialised in microfluidics to create chips with channels so small even specks of dust can cause obstructions in their workflow. For this reason, the team built the microchips in an airtight clean room. The chips themselves are the size of microscope slides but they can manage complex tasks.
The researchers produce the chips using photolithography. The chips themselves consist of PDMS, a transparent rubber. The first step is to create a cast. They pour a liquid mixture into a silicon plate. This creates the desired polymer compound. The next step is to overlay a printed black photomask that indents the desired channels into the polymer and harden it with UV light.
They then pour the PDMS into the cask and bake it at 65 °C. Finally, they stick a glass slide under the processed result. This entire method take an entire day. The team also developed a method to isolate circulating tumour cells. These cells can help identify the exact mutations that cause malignancy and immensely aid future research.
Applications for Medical Microchips
The field of diagnostics could massively benefit from this research. Scientists at the lab are woking on a chip that can diagnose samples and detect diseases like cancer. This would be a simple sample in, diagnostic result out function. At this point, the samples need to be prepared but the end goal is to make it simple enough that even the layman can understand it.
This research will also bring to light many of the intricacies of fluid movement in heavily confined micro-environments. This will allow scientists to pack in lost of information and functions in small devices. 3D printing is crucial to this research because only machines can work in areas so compact. It is nearly impossible for human beings to perform delicate operations at this scale.