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High school teacher creates microfluidic devices using a photocopier


January 24, 2011

A high school physics teacher has invented a method of producing microfluidic devices, using little else than a photocopier and transparency film

A high school physics teacher has invented a method of producing microfluidic devices, using little else than a photocopier and transparency film

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Microfluidic technology, in which liquid is made to pass through “microchannels” that are often less than a millimeter in width, has had a profound effect on fields such as physics, chemistry, engineering and biotechnology. In particular, it has made “lab-on-a-chip” systems possible, in which the chemical contents of tiny amounts of fluid can be analyzed on a small platform. Such devices are typically made in clean rooms, through a process of photolithography and etching. This rather involved production method is reflected in their retail price, which sits around US$500 per device. Now, however, a high school teacher has come up with a way of making microfluidics that involves little else than a photocopier and transparency film.

Joe Childs, who teaches physics at Massachusetts’ Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, collaborates with Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), via the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Teachers program. As part of that program, he devised a quick, simple and inexpensive method of creating reusable labs-on-a-chip.

He starts by designing the layout of the microchannels in PowerPoint, printing that image, then photocopying it onto a sheet of classroom-style transparency film. The same sheet is ran through the photocopier repeatedly, until the ink builds up sufficiently to create a raised relief model of the channels. That model serves as a negative mold, which is used to create the final working channels in a polymer chip.

Childs is now working with SEAS Director of Instructional Technology Dr. Anas Chalah, to perfect the system. Already, he says, they can design and build a chip in a single afternoon. Although the photocopier microfluidics are not as precise as their commercially-produced counterparts, they could prove to be an invaluable educational aid for physics students, who will be able to design and build their own microfluidic devices.

All photos courtesy Harvard University.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

That really is brilliant! =)


So simple and yet so very clever! Love it! And it didn\'t come from a billion dollar research facility- it came from an innovative teacher. Kudos to him- his students are lucky people!

Facebook User

I have just one question, \"Why PowerPoint?\"

Paul Anthony

I\'d think it would be easier to pick up something like a CarveWright machine. It costs about the same as a copier and can do the milling directly on the final material. I suspect it will be at least and probably more accurate than the feed mechanism on a copier.

Facebook User

Economically feasible for use by students? Kudos from me too, Joe.

Fred Meyers

The method described here is not really new. I have been using the same principle (printer ink transparency film) in 2005 for fast testing of microfluidic designs. The principle of the method is clearly described in my PhD manuscript (published in 2006). Contact me if you want details about this.

Guillaume Colas, PhD - colas.guillaume@gmail.com - http://about.me/guillaumecolas - http://mywebplace.online.fr/ - http://twitter.com/g_colas

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