Optofluidics: successful fusion of optics and microfluidics

Find out more about optofluidic chips based on the fusion of optics and microfluidics, and their applications, particularly in early detection.

Optofluidics: where light and fluids meet

Although microfluidics emerged in the early 2000s, it wasn’t long before the first derivatives of this discipline were being developed. Optofluidics, which began to emerge in the middle of the same decade, is certainly one of the most telling examples of the developments that can be associated with the microfluidic revolution.

Nano-opening of the plasmon resonance optofluidic structure of biosensors
Nano-opening of the optofluidic structure
plasmon resonance for biosensors

Since microfluidics enables the manipulation of very small quantities of biological fluid, it opens the way more easily to sensitive analyses. As a result, the separation and detection of biomolecules in fluidic microchannels – one of the applications of optofluidics – is now a reality. Semiconductor nanostructures such as lab-on-a-chip, and the optofluidic chips they produce, are therefore sources of considerable progress in early diagnosis and personalized medical monitoring.

Detail of an optofluidic chip structure

As its name suggests, optofluidics is the fusion of optics and microfluidics. More concretely, laboratories-on-a-chip – the most remarkable feature of microfluidics – have the ability to integrate specialized optical tools for sample analysis, thus becoming optofluidic chips. Integrated optical tools include:

  • Optical waveguides, which direct light through the chip in a controlled manner.
  • Optical resonators, designed to resonate at a specific wavelength, amplifying the optical response at that particular wavelength.
  • Beam splitters, which separate the light into several paths, allowing light to be directed to different parts of the chip.
  • Optical cavities, which amplify light by trapping it and interacting with it over several cycles.
  • Optical modulators, which modulate the intensity, phase or polarization of light.
  • Optical sensors, which convert light into an electrical signal.
  • Integrated light sources, such as laser diodes or LEDs.
  • Optical filters, which select specific wavelengths and filter out unwanted light.

Or else:

  • Optofluidic microresonators, such as droplet resonators;
  • Optofluidic microscopy, including 3D microscopy and lens-free optofluidic microscopes.

Architecture and basic principles

Schematically, optofluidic chips consist of three levels:

  • The base, which contains the optical tools.
  • The intermediate layer, which integrates the fluidic microchannels.
  • The top layer contains the elements that will operate the liquids, i.e. the valves and pumps.

How does it work? In short, we could say that optical waveguides direct light through the chip, while fluidic channels enable liquid handling. And it’s this light-fluid interaction that offers a wide range of applications.

Optofluidics at work: fascinating applications to explore

An unsuspected screening panel

Optofluidic chips, in particular, are used to bring a wide range of applications to life:

But in the absolute sense, what's the point of all this manipulation?

Optofluidic chips can be used to screen for a wide range of medical diseases and anomalies. For example, they are behind the detection of biomarkers for pathologies such as autoimmune diseases, autism and metabolic disorders, to name but a few.

Example: early detection using deep neural networks and optofluidics

Holger Schmidt and his team at UC Santa Cruz have recently developed optofluidic chips to detect biomarkers using deep neural networks. Their goal? Early diagnosis of patients with potential diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s or diabetes.

This example highlights the tangible contribution made by optofluidic chips, with two of their main advantages greatly justifying the interest shown in them:

  • The ability to detect biomarkers in real time, which is essential for rapid diagnosis and treatment of diseases;
  • Fast, accurate analysis.

Despite technical and physical limitations that have yet to be defined, optofluidics is the perfect illustration of the breadth of microfluidic possibilities for a variety of applications, tools and protocols.

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