Expert opinions, TECHNOLOGY

Microfluidics: A new step towards technological sovereignty

Microfluidic technology is an emerging arena, with exceptionally good prospects in the Russian market. Microfluidic systems have made their way into different fields, from medicine to industry. Another promising application for microfluidics is small-scale chemical production.

Microfluidics is a science that studies the behavior of tiny volumes of fluids. With microfluidic equipment, we can peep into the microcosm of constantly moving flows of liquids and gases. Unlike the study of the behavior of nano- or quantum particles, microfluidics focuses on fluid flows moving through micro-channels in microfluidic systems. These channels are created by etching or casting on platforms of glass, polymers or silicon.

Microfluidic systems can provide the required conditions for a wide range of chemical reactions at the microscale (down to several tens of microns). In fact, such systems are microreactors capable of multi-stage synthesis.

Opportunities to study fluids at the micro level are in great demand in many fields of science and industry. This is why microfluidics that emerged back in the 1980s, has been developing so quickly in the past couple of decades (which is a relatively short term for a science).

Microfluids for microchemistry

The global market of microfluidics was worth $23.17 bln in 2022, as estimated by Data Bridge Market Research, but prospects are the key. It is predicted that the industry will boast an average annual growth of 15.01% between 2023 and 2030, to reach $70.93 bln. The market has already peaked in North America and is most dynamically developing in the Asia-Pacific Region.

Microfluidic systems find their most common applications in medicine, including hospital and diagnostics equipment, and devices for pre-clinical trial of medications. For example, PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, was a common testing method during the coronavirus pandemic. PCR exposes a virus even if there are only minimum traces of it in a body. Using microfluidic systems ensures the highest testing accuracy, among other things.

Microfluids also find their uses in biopharmaceutical production, cosmetics, academic research and chemical production, especially in small-scale production.

The small-scale production of chemicals is very different from the large-scale production of base polymers. It requires more research and continuous testing of small batches with the use of special equipment that must be constantly adjusted to new pilot batches. All of this makes the process of production and testing of the final product long and expensive. Microfluidic technologies, or more precisely, devices created using them, make it more effective. Microfluidic equipment is designed for prompt experiments with chemicals, and product testing.

Good things come in small packages

Small-scale chemical production is the manufacturing of chemicals that serve as additives to the main ones. These are, for instance, inhibitors, surfactants, various agents, colorants, catalyzers, and others. These agents are necessary for creating a marketable product from the chemical compounds produced by the large and medium-scale chemical sector.

The problem is that Russia does not yet produce most of the “mini-products” that the chemical sector needs. At least 50% of the total volume of chemical additives used in the industry is still imported, despite the sanctions regimes and preferences for Russian manufacturers.

The development goal of small-scale chemistry production in Russia is outlined in the roadmap for the chemical sector. In September 2023, proposals were adopted to provide additional state support for small and medium-scale chemical production. They include 61 supporting projects. The government believes that their implementation will boost small-scale chemical production by 240 billion rubles by 2030.

One of the main reasons that the share of Russian-made products in small-scale production is low is the unprofitability or extremely low profitability due to high costs and small volumes of output product. At the same time, it is necessary to maintain the production of a fairly wide range of products and spend resources on each of them. The use of microfluidic equipment will help deal with this issue.

Microfluidic systems are used to make microreactors, devices in which chemical reactions and synthesis can be initiated in a wide range of temperatures and pressure with a minimal risk. Although processes occur in very small amounts, this technology allows for the greater target product output through reducing effects of side reactions. Also, microreactors can be easily and fairly inexpensively scaled as compared to building a fully functional chemical reactor; they are compact and conform to the requirement of sustainable green development.

Efforts to apply microfluidic devices in chemical production have not been active so far, the reason being the lack of domestic gear. Microfluidic equipment, such as pumps and reactors, are mostly imported, resulting in both costs and certain risks for companies, which may fail to receive necessary imported parts in case breakdowns take place. Also, maintaining imported equipment is expensive in any case.

Russia has begun to develop producing its own microfluidic equipment, such as the project for creating microfluidic systems with ultra-thin channels for liquids and gases implemented with the participation of the Advanced School of Chemical and Mechanical Engineering of Mendeleev Russian University of Chemical Technology. Production of such devices will be launched at Titan Group facilities in the third quarter of 2024. Prototype modules are already in use for certain projects, such as by the Research Institute of Organic and Non-Organic Chemistry Technology and Biotechnology for synthesizing methionine, added as an essential component to composed poultry feeds.

Looking into the future, we expect the microfluidic equipment market to have vast potential for growth: its current size is estimated at RUR100 million per year – which is the approximate total cost of products manufactured using these devices. Meanwhile, the global market has already reached $28.4 billion. The microfluidics industry is only emerging globally: the related equipment currently produces no more than 1.5% of the total amount of small-scale chemicals output.

Like any prospective investment option, microfluidics can be risky. Yet, here we can see investors playing on the same side with applied science, which serves as the basis for extensive efforts that have already began across the globe both in science and production. 

By Vladimir Panasyuk, head of the Microfluidics project, Titan Group

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