With their ability to guide and analyze tiny quantities of liquid, microfluidic "lab-on-chip" devices have found use in everything from seawater desalination to explosives detection to the viewing of viruses. Each time a new type of device is created, however, it must be built from scratch. This can be time-consuming and costly, as the fabrication of multiple prototypes is a traditional part of the trial-and-error development process. Now, however, building them may be as simple as mixing and matching prefabricated Lego-like modules.

The "modular fluidic and instrumentation components" (MFICs, or "em-fix") were designed by a team at the University of Southern California, led by materials science graduate student Krisna Bhargava.

He started by identifying the separate functions that are typically performed in microfluidic systems – things like routing, mixing, and analysis. The team then created computer models of eight different MFICs that would perform each of those individual tasks.

Those models were subsequently used to create 3D-printed physical MFICs, each one measuring about one cubic centimeter. As a means of boosting the flexibility of the technology, the modules can be joined together not just horizontally but also vertically via connectors – this means that they can be used to create three-dimensional microfluidic systems, as opposed to the more traditional (and limited) flat devices.

The prototype system reportedly performs very well, and has already been used to create a setup that mixes fluids and then turns the mixture into precisely-sized droplets. Bhargava and his team now plan on creating other types of MFICs, with hopes that once the technology is widely adopted, an open-source community will allow researchers to share designs.

"You pull out everything you think is going to work, you stick it together and you test it," he said. "If it doesn't work, you pull part of it out, swap out some pieces and within a day you've probably come to a final design, and then you can seal the system together and make it permanent. You have a massive productivity gain and a huge cost advantage."

A paper on the research was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.