How to think like a futurist: Microfluidics

The world never stops changing, and it’s the job of a futurist to stay ahead of change and prepare for the future. Anyone can be a futurist by paying attention to trends and embracing the constant shifts in society and technology. As futurists, we can take advantage of opportunities to lead, innovate, and build a better future.

In this new series, we will look through the lens of a futurist to explore some of the exciting technologies and trends bound to shape our future lives.

Ready to think like a futurist? Let’s dive into microfluidics.

Step 1: What is microfluidics?

In short, microfluidics is the ability to work with tiny amounts of fluid and at great precision. Printing is an excellent example of that. Over the last 30 years, HP has perfected the art of placing very small amounts of fluid in exact locations on a page to create printing. The technology behind this is microfluidics.

We are talking here about manipulating fluids that are a fifth the size of a human cell and a thousand times smaller than a raindrop. Hence the name microfluidics, and of course, microfluidics isn’t something that is only applied to printing. There are a lot of fluids in the world, including within our bodies. From life sciences to agriculture to healthcare, microfluidics has a whole host of existing and potential applications.

Step 2: Trendspotting

Did you know that someone is added to the US national organ transplant waiting list every nine minutes? Along with many other sobering statistics, that fact showcases the immense need for innovation within biotech, and microfluidics may be the solution.

Recent advancements from the Stevens’ Schaefer School of Engineering & Science have found a way to accelerate the creation of 3D-printed organs. Led by associate professor Robert Chang, these researchers hope to use microfluidics to achieve a more precise and controllable method for 3D-printing organs. By creating a microfluidics-enabled 3D printer, researchers could more accurately print organs at the scale of human cells. Microfluidics can also utilize multiple “bio-inks,” allowing for the reproduction of any type of tissue and opening exciting new avenues for healthcare technology.

Another healthcare innovation using microfluidics is these wearable sweat sensors. Using paper-based microfluidics, these sensors can measure various chemicals, drugs, and hormones in sweat. The information gathered from these sensors could help diagnose several health issues, from cardio-renal disease to cystic fibrosis.

Step 3: Opportunity knocks

As startups and scientists continue to explore the potential behind microfluidics, the technology will become further refined and precise, leading to more opportunities within healthcare and diagnostic tech.

One such company is Fluigent, which aims to develop more advanced fluid control systems. Doing so could help accelerate the development of new medicines, therapeutic treatments, vaccines, and more. By introducing pressure pumps to its microfluidics chips, Fluigent could achieve complete control of flow rates, allowing for much higher precision. HP Labs is also exploring microfluidics and its many uses, such as cancer detection.

Due to the rising demand for point-of-care diagnostics and other microfluidics technologies, the global microfluidics market is expected to be worth $43 billion by 2027. Though microfluidics technology could be applied across several industries, the healthcare industry will likely see the most significant impact. After the effects of COVID-19, healthcare has received more attention than ever, specifically diagnostic technologies enabled by microfluidics.

Let’s also look at food and water contamination. One in 10 people suffer and fall ill from food contamination every year. One in four people lacks access to safe drinking water. But how do they know? Today these tests for contaminated food and water need to be sent into a central lab facility with large and expensive equipment, and it takes days to get results back. But what if all of us could carry something in our pocket that could in real-time test whether the food we’re eating or the water we’re drinking is safe? That’s the power of microfluidics.  

When I think of microfluidics, I believe it’s very similar now to how computing was 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, we had these vast mainframe computers in central facilities. If you wanted to use them, you’d mail in punch cards that got processed, and you’d need to wait days for the result. Microprocessors changed all of that, effectively shrinking a mainframe down into a PC or a phone to democratize access to computing. Today microfluidics promises to do the same for healthcare and life sciences, taking large centralized and expensive lab equipment and shrinking it down to a lab-on-a-chip, enabling a world where everyone can have a “lab” on their desk or in their pocket, and providing everyone with access to instant disease diagnostics or personalized treatment information.

Microfluidics technology will change our world, from how we diagnose illnesses to how we heal people. Beyond healthcare, the technology could reinvent food science or even space travel! Microfluidics is likely to significantly improve our future lives, and futurists must look for opportunities to embrace and contribute to this technology.

Now it’s your turn: How do you think microfluidics will change our world?

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