Rewriting Life

The Accidental Art of Microfluidic Devices

An exhibit of microscopic art has been launched by the journal Lab on a Chip.

Jul 9, 2010
A Flikr group called “Art on a Chip” shows an artistic side to a hot area of technology: microfluidics devices. In the group a vibrant collection of images shows cells, channels and fluids on the micro scale. Researchers are encouraged to upload a favorite picture captured through their research, says the curator of the online collection, Albert Folch, an associate professor in BioMEMs and Microfluidics at the University of Washington.

“Our fields of research are bursting with art,” Folch says in his introduction to the website. “I am willing to bet that your hard drive contains at least one gorgeous image that will make me catch my breath.”

Many of the images come from Folch’s own collection, and the gallery is a repository for happy accidents. “A lot of times we make mistakes in research that are prettier than the ones we end up publishing,” Folch says.

Microfluidics devices consist of a combination of tiny channels that interface with microelectronics. They have a range of potential applications, including hand-held contraptions that can quickly detect diseases, and are a hot topic of recent research.

Folch was at µTAS, a microfluidics meeting in San Diego in 2008, when he entered the meeting’s open picture competition with an image from one of his papers. He didn’t win, but was captivated by the beauty of entries from fellow participants. He brought the idea back to Lab on a Chip, where he now serves as Art Editor. Folch announced the gallery’s opening on its Flikr Web site on June 24, 2010, and enthusiastically awaits contributions.“Microfluidics Butterfly” (above) was created by arranging two mirror images of a micromixer–a device that controls the path of fluid flow–next to each other, and then superimposing them on a blue background.
This image is titled “Chaotic Lava Mixer.” The orange and black panel on the right was formed by running a blue dye through the channel of a microfluidics device and taking a negative of the image. Varying the color of the image first, then taking the negative of the image resulted in the image on the left, a day/night effect.
The square at the center of each of the four sections in “Chromatic Mixer” is a culture chamber where cells are grown on a porous membrane under very precisely controlled conditions. The hue of the original image (bottom right) was shifted and arranged to form the collage.
Light diffracts when it hits the transparent microchannel shown here at a particular angle, making the edges visible. The two micrographs that form “Microvalves Switching the Light” are negatives of each other.
The Color of Viscosity” shows the patterns formed by water and dextran moving through the same channel at three different flow rates. Color was added after the photographs were taken in grayscale.
“Microvalves at night”: The four inlets shown in Microvalves at Night allow the precise mixing of fluids to create complex gradient patterns. The inlets eventually lead into a cell-culture chamber. The image was inverted to give the feeling of darkness.
In “Microfluidics Color Showers” colored fluid is flushed into channels that divide and branch, giving the illusion of a shower. When the color of the fluid is changed from blue to yellow, as in the top right image, the result is a blending of the colors.
“The day the Mondrian visited the lab” is a seemingly simple image that is part of a complex web of microchannels that feed into a cell culture chamber that contain neural cells, precisely moderating the fluids that enter the chamber.
“Combinatorial Mixer” shows a section of a tiny mixing device. It takes two fluids, dilutes them into four, then mixes them in every possible combination. The result is this mesh of color.
When glue used to stack layers of plastic together is put through this device it chokes the flow of fluids inside. It also makes for the abstract picture “Glue in the Microchannels 2”.