Microfluidics Should Scare You

June 4, 2019
by Philipp C. Bleek and Cyrus Jabbari

The following is an excerpt of an article originally published by the US Naval Institute.

Imagine several hazmat suit-clad figures in a room monitoring what appear to be stacks of computer servers connected by a web of tubing. A colorless liquid begins to flow out of the final tube and into a storage container. One individual in the room turns and nods to the observation window, confirming the successful resumption of Syria’s chemical weapons program.

Or, picture elsewhere a cohort of US Marines, who just received artillery fire near a village. The warfighters and several local individuals see and smell gas. A small swarm of drones deploys to collect air samples as the Marines simultaneously sample their blood on tiny disposable papers that resemble computer chips to test for exposure to a toxic chemical. The drones quickly relay to the warfighters that sulfur mustard agent was released in the area.

As these hypothetical but plausible stories illustrate, actors good and bad may soon take advantage of microfluidics technology to produce or defend against chemical weapons. This technology has significant implications.

Microfluidics technology enables greater efficiency and control for some chemical reactions than traditional chemical equipment. Microfluidic devices are already being used in the chemical, medical, and pharmaceutical industries. The technology is widespread but also rapidly developing, with significant uncertainties around its future potential, and the security policy implications have not received enough attention. Microfluidics technology could enable nefarious actors to produce chemical and biological weapons—but can also enable efforts to defend against such threats.

Various elements of the Department of Defense (DOD) science and engineering community have investigated and invested in programs focused on microfluidics technology. But the rapid maturation and diffusion of microfluidics technology—and its relative lack of awareness or visible discussion among nonproliferation and counterproliferation experts—leaves the United States at risk of either surprise or misuse of the technology by adversaries. DOD must grapple with and catalyze dialogue on the implications of microfluidics technology for today and tomorrow.

Continue reading at the US Naval Institute.

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