Chemical engineering research and education are about to be transformed by a small but mighty innovation called a microfluidic chip. Assistant professor of chemical engineering Dr. Orlin Velev and doctoral students Brian Prevo and Ketan Bhatt have co-invented a new microfluidic device that will replace the old beaker-and-test-tube approach to studying chemical reactions with a microscopic factory for synthesizing or separating individual molecules.

“The problem with the state of the art in micro screening devices [also called microarrays] is that cells and suspensions won’t easily flow through the tiny channels on the chips,” explains Velev. The uniqueness of the chip developed by Velev, Prevo, and Bhatt is that electrical pulses are used to “hover” droplets through the liquid (see illustration), separating or combining them at intersections, sorting them, encapsulating them, or even synthesizing novel materials inside them. Using this new technology, biomedical students and researchers will be able to put a small amount of toxin, blood, or other substance into a single fluid microdroplet and move it around, mixing, analyzing, or separating it electronically.

Reducing handling and storage of large amounts of toxins or contaminants in laboratories could be a boon to both universities and the biomedical industry. Scaling down to the micro and nano levels would have broad cost, space and labor implications—not to mention safety advantages.

Having joined NC State just two years ago, Velev is the paradigm of the young faculty superachiever. He has attracted $780,000 in research funding, prestigious faculty awards, and top doctoral students, also writing several publications and receiving a provisional patent. Velev’s work has already been cited over 1200 times in publications by other authors. “I’m just getting started,” he says humbly. “So I have to work hard now.”

Nonetheless, a look at the long list of awards on his resume confirms that achieving has been a way of life since his Bulgarian childhood. At 16, he won a gold medal at the Bulgarian National Chemistry Olympiad and took home a bronze from the International Chemistry Olympiad in Stockholm. This secured his acceptance to the University of Sofia, Bulgaria’s best. Although he majored in physical chemistry, he also nurtured a steady interest in electronics. Today he combines his interests in the interdisciplinary worlds of nanoscience (manipulating materials at the molecular scale) and photonics, (a branch of physics that deals with light as a medium for transmitting information).

Velev’s recent $405,000, five-year National Science Foundation Career Award was based in part on his microfluidic chip research and its educational potential. “Eventually, this technology could lead to much quicker discovery of a cure for a specific disease,” says Velev, “or sensing very small amounts of toxins before they endanger soldiers or emergency responders. These would be significant results in a field that was first introduced only a few years ago.”

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