Increasing demand for microfluidics leads to market optimism

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HANOVER, Germany, April 28, 2004 — Microfluidics, or the manipulation of minuscule amounts of fluids, got a good deal of attention at Germany’s Hanover Trade Fair last week. The technology has matured and its wide range of potential uses has become more apparent.

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“More people are recognizing the possibilities of microfluidics,” said Remco A. de Vos, marketing manager at Micronit Microfluidics B.V. in the Netherlands. “There is lot of future expansion room here.”

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“There is a real increase in demand for microfluidic systems,” said Holger Krenz of Steag microParts, whose company produces several microfluidic devices, including a chip the length of a matchstick and half as wide used for medical diagnostics. Tiny capillaries join the 96 wells on it and each well can hold 1.8 microliters of liquid. “People want fast results, but quality and quantity are important as well.”

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While the biomedical applications are most evident, there are also possibilities in the microsystems technology, aviation, manufacturing and metalworking industries. Microdrop GmbH, a microfluidics company founded in 1990 when the field was still newborn, sells systems that can dose very precise quantities of liquid down to the picoliter range (one-trillionth of a liter).

Such systems can glue microlenses that are smaller than 1 millimeter. The technology can also be used on megasize objects, such as airplanes. Microdrop’s NanoJet System can dose tiny quantities of oil onto drill bits during aircraft assembly, using less than 1 percent of expensive special oils that are consumed during a spraying procedure.

“The potential market is big, especially if we get more active in polymer-based electronics,” said Andreas Arp, Microdrop’s R&D manager. “Then you could see microfluidics coming into play in the electronic marking of all kinds of products, even the milk cartons at your local grocery store.”

As with any new family of technology, there have been growing pains as microfluidics makes its way into the marketplace. According to Ulrike Michelsen of Bartels Mikrotechnik, more microfluidics companies went under last year than started up.

“We’re in a kind of sorting process right now,” she said. “But the indicators are good; markets are slowly picking back up.”

A decade of commercial experience, as well as the current funding environment, has led technology providers toward a more realistic niche-market approach. Gone is the mass production vision of the 90s. The field is now characterized by the development of microfluidic modules that add value to overall systems.

“There was a lot of big hype at one time, and people talking about big demand. The truth lies somewhere in the middle,” said Krenz of Steag microParts.

The microtechnology sector at the trade fair felt the same. It, along with the Liquid Handling Competence Center, one of Europe‘s largest research and development groups working in microfluidics, held an all-day symposium on the topic to talk about current trends and ways in which microfluidic systems can improve existing products.

Microfluidics is a relatively new science that picked up speed in the 1990s. This kind of tiny-scale plumbing makes it possible to manipulate individual cells, sort proteins or monitor chemical reactions in minuscule amounts of fluid. Enthusiastic researchers say that the miniaturization and integration of chemistry and biology will fuel a revolution. What electronics did for computation, microfluidics can do for biology, they say.

The technology is the underlying principle of lab-on-a-chip devices, which carry out complex analyses, while reducing sample and chemical consumption, decreasing waste and improving precision and efficiency. The idea is to be able to squirt a very small sample into the chip, push a button and the chip will do all the work, delivering a report at the end. This application is especially attractive to pharmaceutical firms and others in the biomedical field.

Despite the hard look at reality, there is still a lot of talk about microfluidics’ bright, profitable future. A report by consultants Frost & Sullivan said new public- and private-sector funding, along with advances in technology, manufacturing and medicine, could drive revenues from $127.8 million in 2002 to $709.9 million in 2008. The report points out that new therapies are likely to stimulate demand and could catalyze the microfluidics sector. However, in the near term, the relatively high cost of the technology could hinder growth.

“There’s been a lot of talk about a boom, but we’re not sure, of course, if it’s going to come or be very long lasting,” said Microdrop’s Andreas Arp. “But even though the economy is bad right now, our products are still selling. That’s a good sign.”


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