Capillary-powered pumps make microfluidic devices go

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Researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) have developed paper pumps capable of powering portable microfluidic devices using capillary power. The advancements in these microfluidic devices are set to open new opportunities for diagnosis on site anywhere.

Microfluidic devices, those controlling fluids one microliter or less, can benefit biomedical diagnostic tools and drug testing technology. A new pumping system, called the hydraulic battery, can control the start, stop, rate and time of the fluid all through the use of capillary action, without the need for electricity.

"One longstanding challenge to the development of portable, real-world microfluidic device technologies has been the need to find a cost-effective way to pump fluids through the device when outside of the lab," said Glenn Walker, co-corresponding author of a journal article on the work and an associate professor in the joint biomedical engineering program at NC State and UNC. "Portability is important, because it makes new applications possible, such as diagnostic tools that can be used in the field. Electric pumps and tubing to connect them are fine for a laboratory environment, but those aren't easy to take with you. Capillary action pulls a liquid into the paper. And by changing the shape of the paper, we are able to control how much liquid is pulled through an attached device—and how quickly that happens."

"Our hydraulic battery is small, lightweight, very inexpensive, easy to connect to a device and disposable," Walker added. "In addition, our paper pumps could be saved for later evaluation, such as to run secondary, lab-based tests to confirm on-site diagnoses. We're optimistic that it could make a difference in both public health and advancing fundamental research.”