Droplet microfluidics

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Entry by Meredith Duffy, AP225, Fall 2011

Droplet microfluidics is a branch of microfluidics that uses a two-phase liquid system (i.e. oil and water, generally speaking) to distribute or sequester materials of interest into a multitude of immiscible droplets. This is typically achieved by flowing one solution containing the material into a microfluidic device then injecting a second solution in spurts at relatively high flow rate through both sides of a cross-junction. The effect is to pinch off droplets of the first solution and suspend them in the second, creating an emulsion. Drops can be maintained separate from each other as long as they continue to flow through a narrow channel, thereby preventing them from touching and mixing. Addition of small amounts of drop-stabilizing surfactant to the second phase can reinforce this immiscibility effect even after the channel widens or that phase is removed.

Advantages of this technique are the ability to control droplet size with high monodispersity through the flow rate of the oil phase, as well as the ability to perform high-throughput assays since each droplet can serve as its own independent testing ground for whatever it contains. Additional modifications can also be made to the drops by taking advantage of such properties as the electrical instability of their surfactant membranes (ex: Ref. 2).

In Image A to the right, taken from the first reference, low-MW polymer solution is injected in bulk into a microchannel, broken into droplets by the periodic injection of an oil phase, and later crosslinked to form polymer gel droplets. Images B and C show droplets of two different sizes produced by controlling the oil phase.

Keyword in References:

1. Controlled fabrication of polymer microgels by polymer-analogous gelation in droplet microfluidics

2. Janus Microgels Produced from Functional Precursor Polymers