Optical Control Technique Could Enable Microfluidic Devices Powered by Surface Tension

A paper describing the technique is the cover story for the August 1 issue of the journal Physical Review Letters. The research has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the Research Corporation.

Existing microfluidic devices, also known as "labs-on-a-chip," use tiny channels or pipes etched into silicon or other substrate material to manipulate very small volumes of fluid. Such "micropipe" devices are just beginning to appear on the market.

The Georgia Tech innovation could allow production of a new type of microfluidic device without etching channels. Instead, lasers or optical systems similar to those used in LCD projectors would produce complex patterns of varying-intensity light on a flat substrate material. Absorption of the light would produce differential heating on the substrate, creating a pattern of thermal gradients. Surface tension, a relatively strong force at micron size scales, would then cause nanoliter volumes of fluid to flow from the cooler areas to warmer areas through thermocapillary action.

"We envision that this could move multiple droplets or packets of fluid simultaneously, allowing arrays of drops to be moving at the same time at multiple locations," said Michael Schatz, a Georgia Tech associate professor of physics. "We could avoid putting detailed architectures onto the substrate. Instead, we would take advantage of advances in the miniaturization of optoelectronics to pattern the substrate with surface tension forces."

Because the temperature gradients would be formed by computer-controlled light patterns, pathways for the droplets could be quickly changed, allowing a reconfiguration not possible with existing microfluidic devices. And because the surface tension effects are strong at the micron scale, they could produce flow rates higher than channel-based microarrays, which must overcome large frictional forces. Finally, the substrate could be easily cleaned between uses, avoiding contamination.