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Boise State Micro-Pump Aids Neurological Research

By: Kathleen Tuck   Published 11:20 am / September 24, 2014

Boise State University researchers are helping to turn science fiction into science fact.

Terminator2PosterIn the 1991 blockbuster movie “Terminator 2,” Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as the T-800 robot sent back from the future to save the world. Although advanced by our standards, Schwarzenegger’s robot was built out of numerous interlinking electro-mechanical parts.

His nemesis, however, was a more advanced T-1000 robot, fabricated from a single material. Its “liquid metal” structure allowed it to fluidly morph into new shapes, something the T-800 could not do.

In Peter Müllner’s Magnetic Materials Laboratory at Boise State, researchers study magnetic shape memory (MSM) alloys, a material that is similar in concept to the “liquid metal” robot. Although not humanoid, MSM technology does shape-shift in response to magnetic fields.

Apply a magnetic field, and the material responds with a shape change. Remove the field, and the new shape remains. Apply a different magnetic field and the material re-forms into a new shape. Do this quickly and with purpose and you have a small motor or pump.

Sam Barker, left, and Martin Vreugdenhil.

Sam Barker, left, and Martin Vreugdenhil.

The Boise State research caught the attention of Martin Vreugdenhil of the University of Birmingham in England. Vreugdenhil studies the brain function of rats in relation to schizophrenia.

In September 2013, Vreugdenhil contacted Müllner, distinguished professor of materials science and engineering, after reading a publication detailing a magnetic shape memory micro-pump that was developed at Boise State in 2011.

Vreugdenhil needed a pump that would accurately deliver sub-microliter volumes of drugs while at the same time being small and light enough to be carried on a rat’s head. He asked if a pump meeting his specifications could be developed using MSM technology.

MicropumpPennyIn February 2014, Müllner received a gift from the Micron Foundation to further advance the MSM micro-pump. Sam Barker, a Boise State undergraduate engineering student working with Müllner designed a new micro-pump.

He collaborated with Blaise Lawless of Idaho TechHelp’s New Product Development lab at Boise State, where the pump housing was 3D-printed. Barker’s pump was capable of delivering liquids at three-tenths of a microliter per minute, thus meeting Vreugdenhil’s specifications.

In June, Barker took eight prototype micro-pumps to the medical school at the University of Birmingham, where he then worked in collaboration with the neurophysiologist and his student.

PumpPhotoThe prototype pumps successfully delivered sub-microliter volumes of dugs directly to specific regions of the brain. The experiments showed that the prototype pumps performed as expected and that the design has the potential to provide an accurate, long-term solution to Vreugdenhil’s needs.

Directly following his work at the University of Birmingham, Barker and Müllner, who had joined Barker for the final experiments in Birmingham, travelled on to Bremen, Germany. In Bremen, Barker gave a talk on his work at the ACTUATOR 14 conference, where his results were received by an interested international audience from academe and industry.

“Having the opportunity to work on a collaborative project that brought together materials science, mechanical engineering and biological science was a very unique and rewarding experience,” Barker said. “Capping off the research experience by presenting that work to an international audience comprised of both scientists and industry professionals was a learning experience that I won’t soon forget.”

Boise State’s MSM micro-pump is the first device that actually makes use of MSM technology.

“Barker’s experiments in Birmingham are a critical step toward commercializing this exciting technology,” said Müllner. “We anticipate developing a new, even smaller pump to be placed on a head stage on the rat so that drugs can be delivered and brain activity can be monitored while the rat is moving about. We plan returning to Birmingham for further experiments in summer 2015.”

Watch a short video on Müllner’s research on MSM technology here.