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Key words lab-on-a-chip, microfluidics, nanotechnology, micro electro mechanical systems, analytical tool
Latest version 2011/08/11
Completed by KU Leuven LFT

How does it work?

Primary objective Analytical tool for small-scale diagnostics or synthetic chemistry.
Working principle A lab-on-a-chip is a device that integrates one or several analytical laboratory functions on a single chip of only millimeters to a few square centimeters in size. A lab-on-a-chip has to deal with handling of extremely small fluid volumes down to less than picoliters using channels with dimensions of tens to hundreds of micrometers. A lab-on-a-chip has a series of generic components:
  • a method to introduce reagents and samples
  • methods for moving these fluids around on the chip and for combining and mixing them
  • a detector system for the microanalytical work

Small volumes reduce the time taken to synthesize and/or analyse a product. The unique behaviour of liquids at the microscale allows greater control of molecular concentrations and interactions, and reagents costs and the amount of chemical waste can be much reduced [1-5].

Additional effects Some disadvantages of a lab-on-a-chip are:
  • physical and chemical effects (e.g. capillary forces, surface roughness) become more dominant on small-scale
  • detection principles cannot always be scaled down meanwhile keeping a good signal-to-noise ratio
  • being a very recent technology, it is not yet completely over its teething troubles
Important process parameters Depends on the type of analyte to be detected.
Important product parameters

What can it be used for?

Products Liquid products
Operations The lab-on-a-chip technology can be used for:
  • chemical analysis [3]
  • environmental monitoring
  • medical diagnostics [4]
  • synthetic chemistry [3]
Solutions for short comings
  • Reduction of time to synthesize or analyze a product
  • Reduction of reagents and chemical waste
  • Compactness of system allows samples to be analyzed at point of need rather than in a centralized laboratory (small footprints of device) [2]

What can it NOT be used for?

Products Non-solubilizable products
Other limitations
  • By scaling down detection principles, a low signal-to-noise ratio may occur.
  • Physical and chemical effects (eg.capillary forces, surface roughness) become more dominant on small scale.
Risks or hazards No information – no problems expected


Maturity The application of lab-on-a-chip technology is still novel and modest. A great deal of work still needs to be done, at present it is an active field of academic research. Commercial exploitation is slow so far, but is gaining pace [1].
Modularity /Implementation Will replace single- or multi lab processes down to chip-format.
Consumer aspects No information – no problems expected
Legal aspects No information
Environmental aspects Given the low fluid volumes used, the amount of chemical waste is much reduced.

Further Information

Institutes KU Leuven MeBioS, IMEC, ISAS
References 1. Whitesides, GM. (2006). The origins and the future of microfluidics, Nature, 442(7101), 368-373.

2. Janasek, D., Franzke, J., Manz, A. (2006). Scaling and the design of miniaturized chemical analysis systems, Nature, 442(7101), 374-380.

3. de Mello, AJ. (2006). Control and detection of chemical reactions in microfluidic systems, Nature, 442(7101), 394-402.

4. Yager, P., Edwards, T., Fu, E., Helton, K., Nelson, K., Tam, MR., Weigl, BH. (2006). Microfluidic diagnostic technologies for global public health, Nature, 442(7101), 412-418.

5. Oosterbroek, E., van den Berg, A. (2003). Lab-on-a-chip: miniaturized systems for (bio)chemical analysis and synthesis, Elsevier Science, 2nd edition, pg. 402, ISBN 0444511008

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Created by LiesbethV on 12 August 2011, at 15:12