At first glance, his invention — a piece of silicon rubber
containing tiny channels that are controlled by moving pins —
is deceptively simple, nondescript even. However, the microfluidic
circuit that engineering senior Wei Gu has been working on for the
past two years means the world to scientists in the field of
microfluidics.

Beth Dykstra
The undergraduate winner of the Collegiate Inventors Competition, Engineering senior Wei Gu, displays his microfluidic circuit. (PETER SCHOTTENFELS/Daily)

Gu’s hard work was rewarded at the final round of judging
of the national Collegiate Inventors Competition, held Saturday in
Akron, Ohio, where he was awarded the undergraduate prize of
$15,000.

Gu won the prize for creating a system that could control the
movement and flow of microscopic amounts of fluids within a
circuit. Gu etched channels into a piece of rubber, sealed them
with a second piece of rubber on top, then used the moving pins of
an electronic Braille display set to deform the channels. The
pressure of the pins pushes tiny amounts of fluid through the
rubber circuit.

Gu’s discovery is a major breakthrough in the field of
microfluidics. The biggest challenge faced in this emerging science
is to control fluid flow at the microscopic level. Now that he has
found a simple way to overcome this obstacle, microfluidics can
potentially be used in the medical and environmental fields.

One benefit of microfluidics would be the ability to introduce
small molecules, like proteins, to analytical instruments at a very
small fixed rate. These molecules could be individually analyzed in
a way that has been typically reserved for large, cumbersome
machinery.

Gu also wrote a computer program which can precisely control the
pattern of movement of the pins, so that the speed and rate at
which the pins press upon the circuit can be varied. Consequently,
the flow of fluids within the system can be controlled according to
the needs of any given experiment.

Gu likens his invention to the integrated circuit, saying,
“If you cannot control the way electricity flows, the
integrated circuit would not work. Similarly, fluid control is
important for microfluidics.”

“My invention is the backbone whereby more components can
be added on in the future, just like how the integrated circuit is
essential for all sorts of electronics today,” he added.

Gu also hopes that, in the future, his invention can be part of
portable diagnostic tools in the medical and environmental
fields.

“I am particularly interested in the long term
implications for health care and monitoring. If there was a working
fluidics circulatory system, you could potentially be looking at a
handheld system that can conduct many experiments that currently
requires big machinery,” he said.

“For example, if chemists could create a chip that could
do multiple analyses on blood cheaply and quickly, it would become
convenient to always keep an eye on various aspects of
health.”

Donald Keck, who has been a judge of the competition for the
past five years, said he was greatly impressed by this year’s
entries. There were a total of 14 finalists, shortlisted from 120
nationwide entries, five of which were undergraduate entries and
nine from graduate students. On Saturday, the finalists made their
presentations to a panel of judges before the results were
announced that evening.

“There were very strong candidates who showed remarkable
creativity and diligence in pursuing their targets. The judges
looked to see if students made critical conjectures on their own
and if their discoveries would spawn a new leap in their respective
fields of technology,” said Keck, a 1993 inductee of the
National Inventors Hall of Fame for inventing the optical
fibre.

The Collegiate Inventors Competition is a yearly program of the
National Inventors Hall of Fame and is sponsored by the United
States Patent and Trademark Office.

Shuichi Takayama, assistant professor of biomolecular
engineering and macromolecular science and engineering at the
University was awarded $5,000 for the role he played as Wei’s
advisor and mentor.

Explaining the impact of this discovery for the scientific
community, Takayama said, “What is special about Wei’s
system is that it is user-friendly, programmable and compact.
Microfluidics is still new and in its primitive stages so this
invention is probably the most versatile personal microfluidic
system that is currently available.”

For Gu, winning this prestigious award is only the beginning. He
hopes to further improve his invention when he goes to graduate
school next year.

Gu will be publishing a paper on his discovery in a scientific
journal, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of
the United States of America
.

In the meantime, while momentum builds, Gu has another important
decision to make. When asked what he was going to do with his
prize, he laughed and said, “I don’t know, but
there’s always tuition. But I’m definitely getting
dinner for my whole lab.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *