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Fraunhofer team finds way to mass produce lab-on-chips

Posted: 07 Oct 2013 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology? lab-on-a-chip? ML<sup>2</sup> project?

Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology IPT in Aachen have joined forces with colleagues from Polyscale and ten other industrial partners from Germany, Finland, Spain, the U.K., France and Italy to make lab-on-a-chip (LOC) devices commercially available. LOCs, or pocket labs, can automatically perform a complete analysis of even the tiniest liquid samples, integrating all the required functions onto a chip that's just a few centimeters long. The research is highly relevant to the industry that has seen many powerful LOC devices in recent years, but very few have made it to the market.

The ML2 project is funded by the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). "One of the main reasons LOCs don't make it to market is that the technologies used to fabricate them are often not transferrable to industrial-scale production," said Christoph Baum, group manager at the IPT. What's more, it is far from easy to integrate electrical functions into pocket labs, and of the approaches taken to date, none has yet proved suitable for mass production.

Microfluidic negative for structuring films

Figure 1: Microfluidic negative for structuring films. Source: Fraunhofer IPT.

The ML2 project aims to completely revise the way pocket labs are made so they are more suited to series production. "Our objective is to create a design and production platform that will enable us to manufacture all the components we need," continued Baum. This includes producing the tiny channel structures within which liquids flow and react with each other, and coating the surfaces so that bioactive substances can bond with them. Then there are optical components, and electrical circuits for heating the channels, for example. The experts apply each of these components to individual films that are then assembled to form the complete "laboratory". The films are connected to one another via vertical channels machined through the individual layers using a laser.

The first step the researchers have taken is to adapt and modify the manufacturing process for each layer to suit mass-production requirements. When it comes to creating the channel structures, the team has moved away from the usual injection moulding or wet chemical processing techniques in favour of roll-to-roll processing. This involves transferring the negative imprint of the channels onto a roller to create an embossing cylinder that then imprints a pattern of depressions on a continuous roll of film. The electrical circuits are printed onto film with an inkjet printer using special ink that contains copper or silver nanoparticles.

Each manufacturing stage is fine-tuned by the researchers in the process of producing a number of demonstrator LOCs, for instance a pregnancy test with a digital display. These tests are being produced in low-wage countries, but with increased automation set to slash manufacturing costs by up to 50 per cent in future, production would once again be commercially viable in a high-wage country such as Germany. The team aims to have all the demonstrators built and the individual manufacturing processes optimised by 2014. Then it will be a case of fitting the various steps in the manufacturing process together, making sure they match up, and implementing the entire sequence on an industrial scale.

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