Research ArticleACTUATORS

A ferrobotic system for automated microfluidic logistics

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Science Robotics  26 Feb 2020:
Vol. 5, Issue 39, eaba4411
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aba4411


Automated technologies that can perform massively parallelized and sequential fluidic operations at small length scales can resolve major bottlenecks encountered in various fields, including medical diagnostics, -omics, drug development, and chemical/material synthesis. Inspired by the transformational impact of automated guided vehicle systems on manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution industries, we devised a ferrobotic system that uses a network of individually addressable robots, each performing designated micro-/nanofluid manipulation-based tasks in cooperation with other robots toward a shared objective. The underlying robotic mechanism facilitating fluidic operations was realized by addressable electromagnetic actuation of miniature mobile magnets that exert localized magnetic body forces on aqueous droplets filled with biocompatible magnetic nanoparticles. The contactless and high-strength nature of the actuation mechanism inherently renders it rapid (~10 centimeters/second), repeatable (>10,000 cycles), and robust (>24 hours). The robustness and individual addressability of ferrobots provide a foundation for the deployment of a network of ferrobots to carry out cross-collaborative logistics efficiently. These traits, together with the reconfigurability of the system, were exploited to devise and integrate passive/active advanced functional components (e.g., droplet dispensing, generation, filtering, and merging), enabling versatile system-level functionalities. By applying this ferrobotic system within the framework of a microfluidic architecture, the ferrobots were tasked to work cross-collaboratively toward the quantification of active matrix metallopeptidases (a biomarker for cancer malignancy and inflammation) in human plasma, where various functionalities converged to achieve a fully automated assay.

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