University of TyumenAn eye for optofluidics research

An eye for optofluidics research

University of Tyumen

Pioneering work has resulted in breakthroughs that may replace traditional optical technologies

A research group at the University of Tyumen in Russia is working to mimic one of nature’s greatest feats of engineering: the eye. Based in the university’s Institute of Environmental and Agricultural Biology (X-BIO), the Research focuses on the emerging field of biomimetics: synthesising biological systems and functions for use in devices and methods with a huge range of applications.

“We aim to study phenomena on the interface of microfluidics, photonics, physical chemistry and biology to understand their nature; and to implement these phenomena to develop new methods and devices in agriculture, biomedicine, materials science and adaptive optics,” says the head of the laboratory, Natalia Ivanova. These approaches underpin several projects that her group is working on in the field of biomimetics, also known as nature-inspired engineering.

The lab was formed in 2015 as a successor to a group led by Boris Bezuglyi, whose pioneering research at Tyumen in the 1990s led to breakthroughs in microfluidics and the use of light energy to generate movement in liquid. Headed by Dr Ivanova, who is also a professor in Tyumen’s applied and experimental physics department, the research group includes three postdocs and four PhD students.

Optofluidics – an interdisciplinary area of research that examines interactions between light energy and liquids, then uses these to manipulate liquids for a range of devices – is the foundation of many of the lab’s flagship projects. In one of its recent successes, the group used optofluidics to develop an adaptive liquid lens that can imitate the main reflexes of the human eye.

The biomimetic optics that the lab uses – synthetic technologies that mimic the biological functions of the eye – have many advantages over traditional optical technologies, Dr Ivanova says. They can adapt more effectively to changing conditions – for example, emulating the optokinetic and pupillary light responses that enable animals’ eyes to track moving objects, with pupils changing in diameter to adjust to the amount of light – and can be engineered on a very small scale. This makes the technology hugely advantageous when used in components for consumer electronics, medical equipment, robotics and many other areas.

Unlike traditional technologies in this field, liquid lenses can move quickly while autofocusing, stabilising images and tracking optical signals, and can focus an unlimited number of times without wearing down, Dr Ivanova explains. This makes them extremely durable and reliable. The researchers believe this varifocal liquid lens could become an integral part of lab-on-a-chip devices, and in optics for computer vision, medical devices and biological research. “In the future, we would like to expand this project by developing new biomimetic microfluidic devices,” Dr Ivanova says.

The lab has also scored major breakthroughs to advance the field of microfluidics itself. For example, the group has developed a non-contact method of capturing micro and nanoparticles in microdroplets using light beams. “We apply thermal stress on colloidal solution, which allows us to control the self-assembly process in real time and create structures and patterns of any complexity with high resolution,” Dr Ivanova explains.

This simple, affordable method solves a problem for scientists using microfluidics and has the potential to speed up research in the area. To test the theory, the group has recently been collaborating with academics at Loughborough University in the UK. “International collaborations help in gaining new ideas and giving a fresh view on our research,” Dr Ivanova says.

The work with Loughborough is one of several projects undertaken in 2019. Tyumen academics have also worked with a group from Israel’s Ariel University in Samaria to develop a solution to magnet-induced deformation of thin liquid film. The project used a photothermocapillary response method, which allows measuring the shape of liquid surface and structure of materials by using laser beams. The two groups tested the method and published a joint paper on the subject together.

The lab has also collaborated internally with other researchers in the X-BIO Institute, combining expertise from different fields to develop practical applications for its methods. This has led to the development of a method to improve the spreading of pesticides on leaves, thus boosting their effectiveness, Dr Ivanova explains. “Being a part of X-BIO helps us in making collaborations with its emerging research groups to apply our knowledge in microfluidics to solve the practical problems in agriculture and biosecurity,” she says.

Being part of the institute also gives the lab a way to bring these technologies to market. “X-BIO has close contacts with industry, therefore providing us with [an understanding of] the actual problems faced by the companies and allowing the implementation and commercialisation of our developed devices,” Dr Ivanova says.

The surface-wetting project has already attracted interest from potential partners not only in agriculture but also the petroleum industry, and Tyumen is currently in negotiations about how to develop this further. “Another promising contact was with one of the biggest international electronics manufacturers, which is considering applying our results on developing the adaptive liquid lens to their new products,” Dr Ivanova says.

Solving challenges presented by the agricultural, petroleum and electronics sectors, along with generating more biomimetic microfluidic devices, will continue to be a major focus for the lab in the years to come.

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