h a l f b a k e r y
This ain't rocket surgery.
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I'm currently struggling with
Basically, it's all about making very tiny
plumbing, usually in the form of
etched in a glass wafer or moulded
photolithographically in a polymer. The
basic idea is to be able to move,
fractionate, mix and reacts liquids in very
Typically, the devices have dimensions
the scale of tens of microns (channel
widths, that is; complete circuits may be
few millimetres across). The problem is
that these things are buggers to work
with, in almost every respect. For
instance, some surfaces may need to be
hydrophobic and others hydrophilic; you
may want to mix liquids whereas the
laminar flow on that scale makes this
difficult; you may need to create a tiny
nozzle, but fully three-dimensional
structures are difficult to make by
I suggest that we look upon insects as
living component resources. They have
tubes, nozzles, valves, mixers, splitters
and all kinds of fluid-handling
designed to operate at the right
dimensions and flow-rates. They also
understand surface properties, and
surfaces which are hydrophobic (even
superhydrophobic) or hydrophilic, are
resistant to crudding, and so on. Best of
all, many of these components are made
of chitin, which is a reasonable
engineering material and can be
chemically modified if necessary (I have
the world's most water-repellant flour-
beetle in my lab if anyone wants it).
The other great thing about insects is
most individuals of a given species grow
to the same size, within a close
We first need some entomological
engineers to dismantle a range of insects
and build a catalogue of parts, along with
dimensions and tolerances. We then
to create a facility somewhere to breed
relevant species under controlled
conditions, dismantle them, and prepare
the parts for shipping.
You need a 15 micron sharp-edged
with a hydrophobic surface, for droplet
delivery? No problem! Just order an
Anopheles gambiae piercing mouthpiece
(adult). How to couple this to your
inlet...ah yes, a European wasp foreleg
second metatarsal segment will fit nicely.
Order a couple of spare Tegenaria
domestica (third moult) pedipalps and
some pea-aphid spiracle filters and
Of course, all this will be way too big for
the nanotech guys. For them, there is a
diverse range of diatoms available, each
intricately crafted in pure silica.
 Ant mimicry
[Ian Tindale, Mar 07 2008]
Small Parts, Inc.
Like this, only smaller. [jutta, Mar 07 2008]
Exactly. Like this, in fact, only smaller still. [MaxwellBuchanan, Mar 07 2008]
A little image collection
[Amos Kito, Mar 08 2008]
Lab-on-a-Chip Made of Paper
"Paper-based microfluidic devices could yield cheap, disposable diagnostic tests." [Ian Tindale, May 20 2008]
[swimswim, Jul 01 2009]
||How would you counter the inevitable counterfeit products in this new market? For example, you order the temporal display cortex of a Leptomyrmex ant, and end up with the product barcode scanner from an infantile Extatosoma tiaratum stick insect instead. 
||The problem would be much less than
imagine - these are not ppoular
items. If I order Upchurch nanoport
ferrules from Presearch (and, let's face
who doesn't), they are unlikely to supply
me with Chinese knock-offs, even
the possiblity and incentive are there.
||Also, as an aside, I should point out
that I'm not proposing to use living
insect tissue (as your anno implied) -
that's much more difficult. I am simply
proposing that we look at insect bodies
as reservoirs of fairly well-
standardized, well-made mechanical
components with useful properties.
||"Did you know that an ant has two miles
of tubing inside it?" Peter Sellers.
||is this a treon thing? give the guy a break
||No it bloody isn't! I used capitals an
punctuation an..an..EVrything. It's quasi-
earnest. There are certainly cases where a
gnat's penis could have a valid use beyond
impregnating another gnat.
||An agony gnat - for insect confessions
||I am and have always been fascinated by insects and their structures. As an engineer with a respectable background in fluid dynamics, I can see how insects could provide outstanding working examples of otherwise very difficult enginnering challenges
||I fully understand what maxwell is saying. I am retired now and have no more access to labs and testing facilities. But, I truly am in admiration and a bit envious of scientific explorere today working in such fascinating fields. I beleive we are now on the verge of astounding breakthroughs in science that will make us all feel like we have been shot though a time barrier into the future.
||Great post maxwell...and I wish you good fortune in your endeavors.
||Having some experience with mucking around in the guts of aedes aegypti i'm not sure of the merits of this idea. Removing structures intact takes time and very carefully grown and killed specimins. Further, functional structures degrade rapidly ex-situ unless kept under very controled conditions. I like the idea but I suspect that copying may actually be easier than trying to vivsect a tool out of mixed parts.
||Ah - so it's halfbaked then?
||[Blisterbob] many thanks! I believe
you're right, in that everything is going
exponential in several fields at the
moment. Microfluidics is excellent fun,
especially for a professional dabbler
such as myself, because it's a fairly new
field and there's still lots of room to
||[WcW] point taken. What about
chitinous parts - the parts I'm
interested in? What would happen if
you soaked your insect in a protease for
a while - wouldn't this leave behind
disconnected exoskeletal components?
And, regarding their longevity, perhaps
they could be used as moulds for
casting replicas in PDMS or some other
more stable material? (Straw-grasping
||Intact chitinous structures should work well for a long time. Boring and piercing mouthparts, boring ovopositors, stingers, and the mouthparts of butterfies are some good usefull exmples. Valves and other flexible componants are not going to remain usefull for very long. If you want complicated structures with unique surface properites then instects are a great place to look. Im a bun here.
||That's what I was hoping. I suspect there
are also some chitinous valves, but their
flexible components would need to be
replaced. The surface properties of some
insect parts, in particular, are amazing -
they do a very good line in
||// They also understand surface properties //
||Goodness. No wonder Blisterbob was forced to retire.
||Lovely (+) ..and I don't say that very often. In so many fields - structural engineering, fluida, optics, signal processing, you name it - we are still miles behind replicating the level of sophistication that evolution has produced in the natural world.
||...although we do better at reentry devices.
||Yes, but they don't have limited slip
||" There are certainly cases where a gnat's penis could have a valid use "
||I don't imagine that one will make it to the tagline bank.
||finally! I have a use for my painstakingly gathered collection of butterfly spiracles! *cackles hand-dryingly*
||can't we just genetically modify/selectively breed insects that have external chitinous tubes with no growth-factor 'off' switch? The proboscis/etc would just keep growing and growing, being extruded from basal cells, and every few days you could a) capture the thing and harvest a length of tubing - or b) kill it, and just get longer tubing. It'd be like a tiny ranch; there could be competitions to lasso bumblebees with floss!
||// there could be competitions to lasso
bumblebees with floss!// [gazer], if you're
not going to take this seriously, you can
||well sorrr--eee, MB; the rot set in with the gnat's penis remark - in years to come, historians of the halfbakery will trace the decline back to that moment. da da dum.
||but seriously(ish) - super-tubular insect phenotypes?
||Hmmm... custom-bred insects - yes, a
||So you've perked my interest; in what applications can one find microfluidics as a use?
||, I hope you're pulling my leg. If it comes off, I have seven more just like it.
||//I can't condone breeding something just so you can kill it and make stuff out of it.//
||Do you have any wooden furniture?
||Nice idea - I fear though that to make it
cost-effective, you'd have to find a market outside lab researchers. For example if you were to develop an inkjet printing technology that relied on the exact mechanical and chemical properties of a mosquito's proboscis, then as well as mosquito probosci being collected in their millions for the inkjet cartridge market, they'd be available at a minimal cost for lab work too
||There's probably a market for a superhydrophobic hat - i.e. one coated in the superhydrophobic bits from millions of insects.
Are we back to gnats' penises again?
||Your unsteamed colleague here. Microfluidics is starting
to be widely used in molecular biology (and probably other
fields; I know of some some chemical applications), mainly
to work with either very small samples or very valuable
reagents. For instance, you can create droplets of
aqueous reaction mixes in oil, all travelling along a
channel; each droplet serves as a self-contained reaction
chamber, with a volume of picolitres or femtolitres. This
is a big deal, for example, when screening compound
libraries, or when doing in-vitro evolution.
||There aren't many consumer products yet, but there will
||[marked-for-tagline] Are we back to gnat's penises again?
||This idea really bugs me. Beetles me why antibody thinks this one would fly.
||No need to get all antsy about it - that's just not cricket. I
spider nopportunity, and figured it would beetle ate if I left
it any longer before posting. Would someone else steal the
idea? Someone would, louse.
||Ah - well. Pharmaeceutical companies screen huge libraries
of compounds for binding activity to various drug targets.
The process is slow and costly, and uses up the very
expensive library. There are moves to do this in
microfluidics (for example, using one sub-nanolitre droplet
for each assay).
||And the bunker is oak-panelled, actually.
||This is a good idea. As a home owner whose place is often invaded by ants I would suggest to enlist ants in aid of your disassembly of chitinous structures process. Ants eat large quantities of insects but, critically, not the chitinous parts. The leeetle buggers then leave veritable mountains of dissasembled insect parts outside their nests.
||It is simple to imagine rows upon rows of glassed-in ant colonies each given access to only a single different species of insect where you could periodically vacuum up the detritus from around their nest openings for sorting and sale.
||Everyone wins. The ants get a free home complete with neverending food supply, the source insects could be permitted to live out their natural lifespans - as ants are as happy with a dead flour-beetle as a live one (neatly getting around [21 Quest]'s objection) - and we have a cheap source of tiny tubules and whatnot for our deserving community of micro-fluid dynamicists.