Artificial cilia could someday power diagnostic devices

Cilia are the body’s diligent ushers. These microscopic hairs, which move fluid by rhythmic beating, are responsible for pushing cerebrospinal fluid in your brain, clearing the phlegm and dirt from your lungs, and keeping other organs and tissues clean.

A technical marvel, cilia have proved difficult to reproduce in engineering applications, especially at the microscale.

Cornell researchers have now designed a micro-sized artificial cilial system using platinum-based components that can control the movement of fluids at such a scale. The technology could someday enable low-cost, portable diagnostic devices for testing blood samples, manipulating cells or assisting in microfabrication processes.

The group’s paper, “Cilia Metasurfaces for Electronically Programmable Microfluidic Manipulation,” published May 25 in Nature. The lead author is doctoral student Wei Wang.

“There are lots of ways to make artificial cilia that respond to light, magnetic or electrostatic forces,” Wang said. “But we are the first to use our new nano actuator to demonstrate artificial cilia that are individually controlled.”

The project, led by the paper’s senior author, Itai Cohen, professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences, builds off a platinum-based, electrically-powered actuator — the part of the device that moves — his group previously created to enable microscopic robots to walk. The mechanics of those bending bot legs is similar, but the cilia system’s function and applications are different, and quite flexible.

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