Professor Wim De Malsche builds new instrument for complex separations such as blood analysis

A Vrije Universiteit Brussel researcher has received a second European Research Council Proof of Concept Grant for his ultra-performance analytical separations, worth €150,000. Prof Wim De Malsche is head of the µFlow team within the VUB departments of Bioscience Engineering (DBIT) and Chemical Engineering (CHIS). The grant is linked to his ERC Starting Grant project EVODIS (worth €1.47 million) and makes him the first VUB researcher to receive ERC follow-up funding twice. He will use the money to develop a prototype for a new separation device, which has multiple applications.


Faster separation of liquids

In the most high-performance analytical instruments, which are used to carry out blood analysis, for example, the first step is separation, in which the various components in a sample to be examined are divided into groups before being presented to a detector. Further improvement of the process is limited due to the slow spontaneous transport of the components in the traditionally exploited, naturally occurring, diffusion process. De Malsche has devised a method to accelerate this mass transport of molecules by “stirring” them.

De Malsche: “It’s like a sugar cube that takes a long time to completely dissolve in a cup of tea. Stirring speeds up that process. With the use of an alternating current that generates a fluid flow, the components are transported many times faster. This approach of stirring on a microscale ensures that dilution of the groups of components is prevented, so they can be measured in high resolution.

He uses induced fluid flows and electrochemical effects for this new method, which he has patented. With the first Proof of Concept Grant, he developed a new instrument to map this type of fluid flow, the vibrating 3D particle image velocimetry (PIV) microscope.

Next phase

The next phase is to integrate an electrically driven pumping system.

De Malsche: “The new instrument promises faster and higher-performance separations in miniature systems, which can be used in analytical labs, but also for patients in a point-of-care setting. The complex separation of haemoglobin in its genetic variants for better diagnosis and monitoring of diabetes is one of the applications we have in mind.”

Filip Legein, µFlow Cell valorisation manager: “This research fits within the activities of the multidisciplinary consortium µFlow Cell, a Group of Excellence in Advanced Research (GEAR) that is actively committed to collaboration with industry and valorisation of its research. This is the second Proof of Concept Grant for µFlow Cell, which is recognition of the quality and relevance of the research carried out, and will allow us to build the bridge to industrial application.”