Microfluidics: the infinitely small at the service of science

Discover the history, technology and practical applications of this science.

With microfluidics: working small has never prevented you from thinking big!

Indeed, who could have predicted that the new scientific revolution would take the form of micrometric fluids? Probably just a handful of researchers in the 80s, like Stephen Quake, an American physicist and engineer often cited as one of the pioneers of microfluidics.

It wasn’t until the 2000s that this discipline really took off. Since then, it has continued to evolve, expand its range of applications and… fascinate!

Dispositifs Microfluidiques: Organes sur puce

The origins of microfluidics? Liquid circulation

Physics, chemistry, engineering, biology… Microfluidics combines all of these for two main uses: to study and manipulate the flow of liquids or gases in micrometer-sized channels, and to manufacture devices on the same scale.

What fluids are we talking about? In the medical field, we refer to blood, water and DNA samples, to name but a few.

Did you know that nature has an amazing microfluidic system? Yes, with their network of millions of tiny capillaries carrying water, minerals and nutrients, trees are an unsuspected source of inspiration!

The introductions have been made, but you still don’t understand the revolutionary side of this discipline? And yet! Microfluidics is to biology and chemistry what microprocessors are to electronics and computing: a veritable upheaval with global impact, thanks in particular to the microfluidic devices it generates.

Lab-on-a-chip: saving time, performance and money

Microfluidic chip with microchannels etched or molded in 3d glass material
Microfluidic chip with microchannels etched or molded in 3d glass material

Decisive advantages

Labs on a chip – better known in the industry as “Lab On a Chip” – are certainly the most remarkable microfluidic device. No larger than 1 or 2 cm, they offer decisive advantages for complex analyses:

  • They enable a wide range of operations to be carried out simultaneously (mixing, reaction, separation, detection).
  • These operations can be repeated quickly and without delay.
  • Results are obtained in shorter timeframes, compared with traditional methods.
  • By handling small volumes of product, these on-chip laboratories reduce analysis costs.

Other microfluidic devices

The variety of techniques and devices generated by microfluidics doesn’t stop there! Among the most commonly used:

  • Microfluidic droplets for studying bacteria or microorganisms;
  • Microfluidic separation devices for cell isolation;
  • Microfluidic reactors for selectivity work in organic chemistry;
  • Microfluidic biosensors for virus detection;
  • Microfluidic pumps for injecting fluids into the human body.

We've aroused your curiosity about microfluidic applications?

Innovation that is already measurable in our daily lives

A few examples of applications

Microfluidics has opened the way to solving problems in a wide range of sectors: human and veterinary diagnostics, drug delivery, chemical analysis and formulation…

Do you want something concrete? Here it is!

  • Point-of-Care (POC) devices perform rapid, simple tests, delivering results in minutes to hours. Does COVID-19 testing ring a bell?
  • 3D cell cultures, able to reproduce an environment closer to the physiological conditions of a given subject, and thus better assess its response to new drugs or therapies.
  • Detection of cancer cells by isolation from blood, urine or other body fluids.
  • Micropumps to inject a product into the human body. The liver insulin injection pump for the treatment of diabetes is recognized as being more effective and comfortable than older techniques.

These examples are just a few of the applications made possible and easy by microfluidics. But you can already see its performance, can’t you?

Canada and microfluidics

Constantly evolving, microfluidics continues to surprise us and meet the increasingly numerous and complex challenges facing our society. To consolidate its strategic position on the world stage, Canada continues to make a major contribution to research in this field. Whether through its universities – the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, McGill University, all of which boast renowned laboratories – or its various funding programs, the country intends to become a key player in this field.

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