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SU opens new avenues for localisation with high-tech micro-manufacturing machine

20th February 2024

By: Marleny Arnoldi

Deputy Editor Online

     

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In a first-of-its-kind for Africa, the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU) has acquired a micro-manufacturing machine that offers many opportunities for research, development and innovation.

It will also make South Africa less dependent on other countries for high-tech manufacturing.

The machine, called the Durham Magneto Optics MicroWriter ML3, will be used for various microfluidic projects, including the design and study of devices which move or analyse tiny amounts of liquid at SU.

It will also serve as a national fabrication facility for researchers countrywide.

More examples of the possible manufacturing projects include cutting-edge organ-on-chip medical research, with applications in drug discovery, cancer diagnosis and treatment, and modelling diseases, as well as ultra-sensitive optical biosensors and culture models, which involves growing and maintaining cells in a laboratory.

Nano-lab manager Daniël Retief says a microwriter uses precisely focused light to form patterns in light-sensitive materials, which can then be selectively removed to leave behind only the desired patterns.

“This allows one to manufacture micrometre-scale structures, such as microscopic channels to manipulate individual blood or bacterial cells, for many different applications. The smallest structure that the machine can reliably make is 0.5 micrometres wide, which is about 200 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair,” he explains.

One of the main advantages of this machine is that it can make virtually any pattern or design at a very high speed without the need for a photo mask – a pattern of the desired structure, with the shadow of the mask being used to develop the structures – and without the complex supporting infrastructure that usually goes with mask-aligners, which is the alternative to a micro writer.

Retief says the machine allows fast prototyping and iteration without the need for masks to be made. Making a mask is very expensive as a new mask must be made for every pattern and cannot be changed once made. In contrast, the MicroWriter has an on-board device that acts as a mask, allowing any pattern to be exposed at any time.

With the acquisition of this machine, SU now has world-class micro-manufacturing capabilities, which makes it competitive in fields such as microelectromechanical systems, laser optics, very high-frequency electronics and biosensors.

The micro writer is one of several machines needed to build a world-class biosensors and microfabrication facility at SU and will be installed in a cleanroom once the Electrical and Electronic Department refurbishment has been completed later this year.

The MicroWriter ML3 forms part of the Nano-Micro Manufacturing Facility (NMMF) established by the Department of Science and Innovation in 2022 and was funded by the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap.

The NMMF’s mission is to foster research in nano- and microscale manufacturing while supporting industry partners in the exploration and development of cutting-edge technologies.

The NMMF comprises five nodes across the country, each specializing in distinct fields.

SU’s node, specifically focused on biosensors, is set to benefit immensely from the acquisition of the MicroWriter ML3.

 

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online

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