I’VE BEEN following developments in microfluidics for a couple of decades now, since I first got my hands on a prototype glass chip in a German development laboratory in the 1990s.
After asking my hosts very nicely, they reluctantly opened the secure case where the postage-stamp sized microfluidic circuit was displayed, and allowed me to hold it with a gloved hand in order to better appreciate its tiny engineering.
As I recall, it had four fluid channels and two reaction vessels enclosed within a near-transparent sliver of glass. I also recall the horror on the faces of the hosts when I pulled out my camera (a good old-fashioned 35mm device) and attempted to take a picture of the thing. I was quickly relieved of the microfluidic chip and ushered out of the laboratory.
In the years since, I have sometimes wondered why the promised microfluidic revolution has not really happened. We see the technology on a daily basis in inkjet printers, and microfluidic chips are now found in specialised applications the laboratory, but it hasn’t really changed the world.
Since then developments have predictably gone down-scale, and nanofluidics seems to be the cutting edge today. So I was surprised to learn of a development which goes not one but two scales smaller, leapfrogging picofluidics to enter the femto realm.
In what is billed as the world’s smallest reaction vessel, scientists from New Zealand, Austria and the UK have mixed fluid volumes measured in femtolitres. This is so small that it could enable chemical reactions to take place inside individual cells.
The lead researcher is Peter Derrick, professor of chemical physics and physical chemistry and head of the Institute of Fundamental Sciences at Massey University in New Zealand, who has an impressively long job title considering how small are the volumes he works with.
The reaction ‘chamber’ is produced by electrospray ionisation, which naturally forms cones of ionised fluid called Taylor cones. The technique is just like that used for sample preparation before mass spectrometry.
By placing two very small nozzles in close proximity, the chemicals sprayed from each are forced into contact to create incredibly fast reactions on the tiniest of scales. The researchers reckon the reaction between the antibiotic vancyomycin and a peptide took just a few tens of microseconds in their experiments.
The work appears in the latest issue of the European Journal of Mass Spectrometry (Eur. J. Mass Spectrom. 18(5), 439–446 (2012), doi: 10.1255/ejms.1198)
Somehow I doubt that we’ll see femtofluidics in any real life applications in the near future, but I do hope this technology contributes more than just making inkjet images a bit sharper.
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