Montana State University Achieves Low-Cost Microfluidics Sensor with 3D Printing

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I had the pleasure of touring Montana State University last year around Thanksgiving, as my son was accepted there. The geography is breathtaking (Montana, not surprising) and so was the tour around campus, as an extremely energetic 20-year-old led us up and down hilly terrain for nearly an hour in the early morning; however, what I was most impressed by was the focus on research.

The enthusiasm of professors and students—and the list of accolades for graduates now working in research—was impressive and inspiring. After a week of wonderment, however, we left the mountains and the elk behind, bringing home memories of Yellowstone, glad to have survived driving in more than one blizzard.

As MSU has continued to stand strong in research, I was especially interested to see that more news has emerged regarding their work in 3D printing for microfluidics. This is an area of science that we follow often, but in this particular work, the researchers have created a unique method, 3D printing tiny liquid-filled channels onto glass (allowing them to view the microfluidics with a microscope).

A micro-machined sensor used in the research.

Not only does 3D printing allow the researchers to enjoy most of the classic benefits of 3D printing—to include customization on-demand, fabrication on-site in the lab, and greater affordability—but they will also be able to translate this work for use in applications like sensors used to detect and measure minerals in water. Stephan Warnat, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, will be using the technology to create micro-sensors to evaluate water quality.

Stephan Warnat, left, and doctoral student Michael Neubauer, work on 3D-printed microfluidics chips with embedded sensors in their lab. Credit: Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

The microfluidic chips were made using a low-cost MiiCraft 50 DLP 3D printer, which was modified to 3D print Clear BV007 resin directly onto glass. The material bonded well with small sensors made up of thin metal sheets, resulting in microfluidic sensors that can then be incorporated into microfluidic chips capable of detecting minerals in water and measuring electrical current. This is part of a research project awarded a $50,000 seed grant from the Consortium for Research on Environmental Water Systems (derived from the $20 million given to them from the National Science Foundation in 2019).

“The turnaround is maybe a day, from start of production to final testing,” said Warnat, estimating that each device will cost only about $1 to produce. “It’s a big step and we’re excited that our idea works the way we thought it would.”

In previous work, the researchers were challenged to find a way to bond the 3D printing materials to the piece of glass being used as a substrate. Here though, the material bonded so well that it can be placed in microfluidic chips easily.

“Really what we’ve done is bring these techniques together in way that’s straightforward and that most people can accomplish in their labs,” said Michael Neubauer, an MSU graduate student working with Warnat. “The hope is that other experts in their fields can follow these methods to come up with applications that are really cool and interesting. These 3D printers are pretty much available to anyone.”

Because MSU does offer such enormous resources to the students studying and working there—specifically pointing to the partnership between the Center for Biofilm Engineering and the Montana Microfabrication Facility in this case, the use of 3D printing was highly supported, leading to further inspiration for the advances in biofluidics. Warnat has added also that they have been further encouraged upon the response to their achievement.

“There’s really a lot of opportunity for applying this technology to research across a wide range of disciplines,” said Dan Miller, head of the mechanical and industrial engineering department. “The future of research is working in these interdisciplinary teams, so this puts Stephan at the cutting edge.”

Find out more about the research article previously published as the researchers began their work here.

[Source / Images: TechXPlore]

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