Cost effective production of artificial cilia

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Borrowing nature's universal solution.


‘Get smaller’ is a perpetual theme for science and technology. A typical need nowadays is to be able to manipulate fluids and particles at increasingly small scales, in order to pump and mix fluids in small quantities for the so called lab-on-a-chip applications, which can be used for daily health monitoring and quick disease diagnosis, and to avoid contamination of surfaces (anti-fouling) of submerged sensors, ship hulls or solar cells. While nature has found a universal solution to these needs, the artificial solution used in science en technology is expensive and not suitable for mass production. In his PhD research, Ye Wang, research group Microsystems, has developed several cost effective fabrication methods that make it possible to ‘get smaller’.

What are cilia?

Nature has found a universal and ubiquitous solution in the form of cilia, which are micro-hairs resembling the shape of human hairs, but being over a hundred times smaller. The outer surface of many waterborne single cell organisms are covered with thousands of cilia, and the oscillation of the cilia makes the organisms swim. Cilia are also present in our own bodies, such as inside our airways where they help to clean up mucus and dust from our lungs. Some maritime shell animals also use them to shield away sand and algae, to avoid being buried alive.

Artificial cilia

Inspired by these natural cilia, a type of man-made micro structures called artificial cilia have emerged in recent years, and have shown great potential in diverse fields of technologies, including the lab-on-a-chip technology, anti-fouling and sensing. However, previous investigations focused on fabricating working proof-of-concepts in labs, and have largely overlooked some important issues for real-life applications of artificial cilia, namely the fabrication cost and feasibility of scaling up the production. As a result, effective but expensive prototypes were made, which often required tedious and expensive processes in a cleanroom environment, and therefore these approaches have little prospect to be commercially used in these fields of applications.

Cost effective fabrication

In order to tackle this problem, Ye Wang, PhD student in the research group Microsystems, has developed three different cost effective, cleanroom-free artificial cilia fabrication methods. Various physical phenomena were utilized to facilitate controllable production, for example using a magnetic field to make tiny chains of magnetic beads that form the backbone of artificial cilia, or creating stable artificial cilia by straightforward magnetic or mechanical pulling principles. Using these new approaches instead of relying on typical micro-fabrication techniques, the cost of producing artificial cilia can be significantly reduced. Moreover, one of the developed techniques has the potential towards industrial scale fabrication and application of artificial cilia.

The ongoing research of the artificial cilia technology in general is potentially beneficial to a wide range of application areas important to everyday life, such as healthcare, energy and consumer products. The results coming from this research have helped to bring this technology one step closer to reality.

Article by TU/e Online News 


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