When Jonas Flueckiger, a University of British Columbia doctoral candidate, set out to design, simulate and make an innovative biosensing system for clinical diagnostic testing, he faced a significant challenge.
Overcoming that challenge not only generated a solution to a research problem; it also enhanced Mr. Flueckiger’s industrial skillset while enabling him and his industrial partner to light the way for future innovators.
Mr. Flueckiger’s idea for a system-on-a-chip combined silicon photonics, an optical technology with the potential to transform the field of biosensing, and microfluidics, a technology with broad chemical and biological applications. The combination is exciting because of its potential for creating high-sensitivity, low-cost diagnostic tools that are simple and easy to use.
However, finding a way to validate his idea was difficult because an essential piece of the toolbox for testing whether the complex system would work had yet to be developed.
“There were no proven models that would enable us to design and evaluate the overall sensitivity and performance of the sensor’s many elements,” he explains. “In this project we needed a way to simulate the system so that multiple characteristics such as sensing signals, intensity measurement, environmental noise, or temperature fluctuations, could be analysed simultaneously instead of just one aspect at a time.”
To advance this work, he and his supervisor, Dr. Karen Cheung, turned to the NSERC Engage program, which fosters new research partnerships between academic researchers and industry. Funded with $20,000 from Engage, they chose to work with Lumerical, a Vancouver-based software development company specializing in photonics, particularly simulation tools for opto- and opto-electronic technologies.
“We used Lumerical’s tools to simulate each of the components, and then to test the system itself,” says Mr. Flueckiger. “Their INTERCONNECT system analysis tool allowed us to deconstruct the various optical elements and see how these pieces interact to make up the full system response.” Other tools, from Mentor Graphics and COMSOL, were also used in the project.
The work by Mr. Flueckiger and his team resulted in a model for both the full system, and its individual components, while at the same time led to advances and improvements in the software tool itself. The students’ models are now included in the company’s design library, where they are available for use by other university researchers as well as industry.
“Hopefully others will be able to use the same models without having to go through simulations beforehand,” Mr. Flueckiger says.
An important next step was fabricating the biosensors and validating the models, which Mr. Flueckiger and his group did through the University of Washington Nanofabrication Facility and UBC’s Advanced Materials and Process Engineering Laboratory (AMPEL). Thanks to Dr. Cheung’s Engage grant, the project was automatically eligible for $2,000 in financial assistance from CMC Microsystems, which covered more than two-thirds of the costs of this specialized development work. “CMC’s microfabrication assistance is essential for our research projects,” says Dr. Cheung.
Mr. Flueckiger is continuing to advance the technology, using external fabrication partners with continued assistance from CMC. “The photonics part is working, but the integration with microfluidics is complicated and very difficult,” he says.
He is also advancing his own skills and knowledge through his ongoing relationship with Lumerical, first as an intern and now as a part-time employee. “I got a lot of experience and knowledge by being in the company. I got feedback, not just about the software but also about my work. At the same time I could actually explain things to the people I worked with. We all benefited from what we learned.”
To date the biosensor project has generated at least three publications, and longer term plans include the possibility of a startup company, says Mr. Flueckiger. Potential applications include blood analysis, bacteria detection, and analysis of disease biomarkers. “The chip can do anything—it’s a platform technology that’s very versatile.”