Microfluidics standardization: when will devices talk to each other?

Prototype microfluidics are costly, time-consuming to build, and difficult to use

It can take a lot of time to design, build, and test a custom microfluidic device from scratch. Not only does the chip itself need to be created, but packaging, controllers, pumps, and optical detection systems must often be incorporated to run the device. Unlike microelectronics, where there are established mains voltages/currents, interconnection methods, and communication protocols, in microfluidics there are few-to-no standards for connecting devices to the macroscale controllers that drive them. Prototype microfluidic systems are time-consuming and costly to build from scratch, but can also be awkward to operate since in the race to publish, researchers usually focus on basic rather than commercial-level functionality.

That’s to be expected when doing cutting-edge device development. In academia researchers usually shrug off the disadvantages of making systems from scratch, because the goal is to produce novel devices, which are all prototypes. To use prototype microfluidics to solve significant problems in biology, you often need both an engineer and a biologist on hand to run the experiment. Most prototype systems are too difficult to operate to hand over as-is to a biology lab, making collaborations even more challenging.

Will a commercial microfluidic system become an established standard in biology labs?

There’s been a lot of publicity from Fluidigm lately about prominent biology labs using their microfluidic platforms. Like a lot of lab equipment, the Fluidigm systems come in two parts: a disposable microfluidic device that plugs into a big-box controller for running the chips. One of the advantages of their platform appears to be its flexibility–Fluidigm has already developed a number of different microfluidic chips that can be run from the same box. Other microfluidics companies, such as Cellasic, have developed their own controllers and devices as well. As more biology labs start to buy microfluidics equipment, what will determine which systems dominate the market?

If a microfluidics standard is established, how will it influence academic/commercial development of new devices?

To lower costs, speed development, and encourage adoption, academic microfluidics labs have already attempted to take advantage of existing equipment, such as Braille displays, standard 96-well plates, and smartphones as measurement devices for the developing world. Micronit, makers of glass-based microfluidic systems, reports seeing a movement toward standardization, but does their “standard” talk with components from other manufacturers? On a different note, the Micronit components are directed toward device-makers, not biologists. Standards within the microfluidics field are one thing, but if the end users (in this case, biologists) adopt the Fluidigm systems, will their vote have a greater role in determining a standard? It’s likely that the assumed proprietary nature of commercial microfluidics controllers may hinder development of devices by third parties. But wouldn’t it be great if microfluidic devices could talk not only to controllers in a standard way, but to other microfluidics?