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Microfluidics and Nanofluidics Handbook: Author Interview

by Editor1 last modified November 14, 2011 - 21:26 speaks with co-editor of the just-published Microfluidics and Nanofluidics Handbook. Prof. Sushanta Mitra, Director of the Micro and Nanoscale Transport Laboratory at the University of Alberta (Canada). His excellent oversight on this 2-volume masterwork’s 600 pages captures the cross-disciplinary breadth of micro- and nanofluidics, with expert contributions from more than two dozen esteemed researchers across biological sciences, chemistry, physics and engineering.

Microfluidics and Nanofluidics Handbook: Author Interview

Dr. Mitra’s work reflects his fervent belief that a multi-disciplinary approach will deliver new benefits to many industries.  A recognized visionary in the field, Dr. Mitra was also just named a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.


A sample chapter from The Microfluidics and Nanofluidics Handbook is available at the bottom of this page. members: Purchase this 2-volume set at a discount. For more information, see the bottom of this page.  

********************************************************* What prompted you and your team to write this handbook?

Dr. Mitra: When we looked at this, we certainly found there were lots of good materials in the [fluidics] space and even an encyclopedia. But, what we saw missing is a very valuable, interdisciplinary approach -- one that would combine all the key sciences impacting micro- and nanofluidics. Those disciplines are many and include physics, chemistry, life sciences and micro-electronics. So, you see we’re at a point where it’s important for today’s research and even tomorrow’s breakthroughs to bring an interdisciplinary or multi-disciplined approach to fluidics and lab-on-a-chip?

Dr. Mitra: Yes! In fact, as we were outlining what the handbook would cover, we got very excited.

The real opportunity was to tie together many individual research disciplines together in ways that happen today with real teams working on applied science and engineering. There are many challenges happening in our field every day where multi-disciplinary teams are providing answers.

And, I tell you, as the submissions came in, we then realized all this excellent material presented us with a huge opportunity to really tie this information together in ways that students and researchers would use it. This would also help the handbook add to the state of micro and nanofluidics with an approach to presenting content in a way that illustrates how multi-disciplined approaches are become so valuable today. The handbook also presents many important perspectives and technology aspects, not just one their own, but how they tie together, in a single book. As I understand it, you also come to the awareness of the value of a multi-disciplined approach from your own day-to-day experience as a researcher?

Dr. Mitra: Yes, that’s certainly the case. In my own case, I work day-to-day on biomarkers and bio-detection. I often thought I needed to know more about the biological systems, so I would challenge myself and spent more time on that. When working on other bio-functionalization and immobilization work, I wish I knew more chemistry.

It was then that I realized the value of starting off students with a multi-discipline approach. I talked about this to my colleagues and every one said we were onto something. And so this handbook looks to expose to the classroom the interdisciplinary nature of how materials and physics and electronics produce solutions. Percolating this approach, even at the undergraduate level, will create new successes – we will see new successes in the next 10-20 years. One challenge in a “multi-disciplinary” approach can be to show how various disciplines work together – where the result is more valuable than simply the sum of the parts. How does Microfludics and Nanofluidics handbook accomplish this?

Dr. Mitra: That’s a good point. This handbook provides a basis where students in chemistry can get a view into how their work will impact engineering and physics areas, and how they can communicate with others across disciplines. Just as importantly, it helps students who have in specialized in one area be inquisitive about the right things in other areas.

Students in biology and in engineering need to look at their work in more complementary ways. Micro and nano-fluidics is today a multi-domain area, and we can run into roadblocks if we focus only on one area.

To take one example, it can be an engineering challenge for those designing devices to know all they need about how biosystems works on which you are applying physics at the micro- and nanaoscale. Changes in one aspect can affect many others quite dramatically. So, this handbook looks to show students in each field how what they do in one field at even subtle ways, can have real impacts on the outcomes in truly fundamental ways. Another area is looking how chemistry impacts the workings of microfluidics lab on a chip. Your book also suggests that a “multi-disciplinary” approach is simply a logical extension to what’s come before in the history of microfluidics and lab-on-a-chip research. Can you discuss that perspective?

Dr. Mitra: If you go back in time, the earliest work [in micro- and nanofluidics] was started by chemists who had the knowledge of modifying surfaces. As time moved one, the focus moved to fluid mechanics and that is where engineers started to come in. They looked at the field at the mechanical and fluid dynamics areas. After that, we entered a phase where electronic engineers came in, and this was largely because much of the fabrication techniques we used we borrowed from the micro electronics domain.

So, while lab-an-a-chip and other such devices have always been multi-disciplined, the specialists always didn’t work with each other directly at the outset to get a full 360-degree view of the area. That has meant that we often have people working to build devices without knowing much at all about the fluid dynamics of the systems.

This book provides a way to get back to the multi-prong approach, where each specialist can contribute and work more closely together. You also point out that funding agencies and sponsors are also becoming more interested in “multi-disciplined” approaches to fluidics research projects?

Dr. Mitra: That is certainly the case. The recent focus of funding agencies is recognizing the value of a multi-disciplined approach.

As an example from my own experience, I am leading a 15-member team who received a $2 million to look at how microbes which grow on coal surfaces can be converted into methane gas. So, in that project we’re looking at how biological interactions or bio-conversion at the nanoscale is transforming materials to methane. This multi-disciplined approach is key to looking at ways to produce energy more efficiently and more quickly.

In another case, in a recent paper I worked on, we reported on a novel type of microfluidics chip we called “reserve on a chip” which represents the pore structure of a naturally occurring oil-bearing reservoir rock. The flow visualization that we observed provided specific information about the presence of the “trapped oil” phase and the movement of the oil/water interface/meniscus in the network.

These observations will enable researchers to better understand pore-scale transport relevant to reservoir engineering. This path breaking work could only be possible due to the knowledge that we acquired for natural reservoir rocks from microscopy techniques, in this case Focused Ion Beam – Scanning Electron Microscopy As an expert, where do you see the most exciting breakthroughs likely to happen in nanofluidics and lab-on-a-chip using a multi-disciplined approach?

Dr. Mitra: Absolutely! There are huge opportunities in thinking multi-disciplined. I can give two examples – energy and biological systems.

In the energy field there are so many exciting areas. Just one project I know personally, researchers are looking at how to recover oil from natural reservoirs with pore spaces in 2-3 micron scales.

In biology, there are biomarkers at the molecular level that could be used to detect onsets of heart attacks and could be used to create an early warning system.

Underpinning both approaches is a focus on understanding fundamental micro and nanoscale transport processes that occur in micro/nano channels or confinements.. And there are other areas just as exciting, including biomedical, water purification and filtration, and DNA chips for a new era of computing.