Microfluidics: Liquid handling
The aim of this document is to scratch the surface of microfluidics, trying to describe the most significant phenomena at this scale.
The first goal of microfluidics is to take advantage of the benefits of scaling down: better control, lower cost, faster results and more. These benefits are especially relevant for biological reactions.
The effects that become dominant in microfluidics include laminar flow, diffusion, fluidic resistance, surface area to volume ratio, and surface tension. As the magnitude of these physical effects is different to the ones experienced at the macroscopic scale, fluid integrated microdevices must be designed from first principles and not simply by miniaturizing macroscopic devices.
Liquid flow in the microdomain belongs to the regime of viscous dominated flow. There is a fundamental change in hydrodynamics that occurs here, which significantly affects microfluidic operations like mixing. This barrier occurs when the Reynolds number is of the order of unity. At these scales, viscous forces dominate over inertial forces, turbulence is nonexistent, surface tension can be a powerful force, diffusion becomes the basic method for mixing, and evaporation acts quickly on exposed liquid surfaces. At low Reynolds numbers, fluid dynamics is dominated by viscous drag rather than by inertia and this is why devices that rely on inertial effects for their operation will no longer work.
One consequence of laminar flow is that two or more streams flowing in contact with each other will not mix except by diffusion. Diffusion is the process, by which a concentrated group of particles in a volume will, by Brownian motion, spread out over time so that the average concentration of particles throughout the volume is constant.
As diffusion times can be short at the microscale, microchannels can be used to create concentration gradients having complex profiles. Mixing schemes at the microscale must find ways to maximize the interfaces between solutions to allow diffusion to act quickly.
Surface area to volume ratio is another factor that becomes important at the microscale. The inverse characteristic length scaling of the surface-area-to-volume ratio implies that heat and mass transfer into or out of a chip can be enhanced as the dimensions of the device are reduced.
When working at the micro scale, another element as the surface tension forces become significant. Surface tension is the result of cohesion between liquid molecules at the interfaces. The surface free energy of a liquid is a measure of how much tension its surface contains. The path a fluid will travel through a capillary is directly related to the water’s surface free energy and inversely related to the radius of the capillary.
When microchannels with dimensions on the order of microns are used, the lengths liquids travel based only on capillary forces are significant. Surface energies have been widely exploited in microfluidics as pumping systems.