Apr 19, 2016 | By Kira

Microfluidic technology, which exploits the unique behaviour of fluids on the micro-scale, has been hailed as having the power to revolutionize research in the chemical and biological sciences, however it has remained largely inaccessible to due high equipment costs and specialized skill requirements. Now, researchers from Cardiff University have proven that it is possible to create complex and versatile microfluidic devices using a relatively cheap, commercially available desktop 3D printer.

Their research, which looked specifically at creating 3D printed, Lego-like microfluidic systems for live dental pulp stem cell encapsulation, has implications on the micro and macro scale.  On the one hand, the 3D printed microfluidic systems could eventually be used to create implantable tissue scaffolds, meaning a potential breakthrough for human tissue repair.

In terms of the bigger picture, however, the researchers hope to prove that 3D printing technology can truly open up the possibilities of microfluidics once and for all, breaking down cost and technical barriers and allowing innovative scientific devices to be easily created and shared at all levels of research.

Specifically, Dr. Oliver Castell of the School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences and Professor David Barrow of the Cardiff School of Engineering developed novel, 3D printed devices that allow for easy integration with traditional fluid handling systems. Additionally, they designed modular fluidic models that were based on actual Lego blocks, allowing for leak-free, re-configurable microfluidic systems.

'Plug and play' Lego-inspired 3D printed modules

Subsequently, in collaboration with colleagues Phil Stephens and Bing Song of the Cardiff School of Dentistry, the researchers used 3D printed droplet microfluidic systems to encapsulate stem cells in droplet capsules. “Such technology is expected to find use as implantable tissue scaffolds in regenerative medicine and tissue repair,” they wrote.

Droplets in flow

The devices were designed in Solidworks 2013, converted using Simplify3D, and printed on an Ultimaker 2 3D printer using clear PLA filament—all of which are commercially available and relatively affordable options. The researchers also tested 3D printed microfluidic devices using a stereolithographic (SLA) 3D printer.

According to the researchers, not only are these potentially the first-ever fully-transparent microfluidic devices to be made using FDM (also known as FFF) 3D printing technology, but the devices were also able to overcome previously reported limitations in regards to transparency, fidelity, and leakage.

“Microfluidics [enables] the use of small sample volumes, reduced costs, increased throughput,” explain the researchers in their paper, published in the journal Plos One. “Despite these unique properties and diverse application areas, microfluidics has largely remained a somewhat specialist research area with limited uptake by those who could benefit most from the technology.”

“Until recently, 3D printing has been limited by resolution or cost of the printers. However, recent advances mean that microfabrication is now possible off-the-shelf, without sophisticated manufacturing centres and advances continue apace meaning the possibilities are likely to increase further still.”

The researchers added that in addition to breaking down barriers at the fabrication level, 3D printing can eliminate barriers at the design level, since 3D printable designs can be easily and freely shared between researchers via email or online repositories. This will further open up new collaborations and research possibilities even for labs with no previous 3D design experience.

By allowing the wider scientific community, including students, researchers and non-experts to experiment with cheap and rapid prototyping and production, 3D printing is truly a democratizing force. In the field of microfluidic technology specifically, which is used in everything from monitoring critical blood levels to the fight against cancer, we can only stand to benefit from this increased inclusivity and access.

Previously, researchers from Wageningen University in the Netherlands have also used 3D printing to create complex microfluidic devices, and most recently, Dolomite’s Fluidic Factory has 3D printed microfluidic chips for as little as $1 a piece.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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