Optical Control of Emulsion Drops for Nanofluidics and Microfabrication

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Chemistry


Ground-breaking discoveries at the STFC's Central Laser Facility showed that optical traps can be used to control the shape of micron-sized emulsion droplets, to create droplets connected by stable threads of oil a thousand times thinner than a human hair and to pump liquids from one drop to another through these nanothreads. This project will explore the science behind these discoveries and develop prospective applications. First, we will develop a robust experimental and theoretical framework for manipulating emulsion drops and for creating nanofluidic networks with laser beams. Second, we will use this platform to reveal the physical and chemical principles governing the structure and dynamics of these nanothreads and use the nanothreads to explore the physics of transport in nanofluidic networks. Third, optical deformation of polymerisable emulsions will be developed as a technology for microfabrication of polymer objects with complex 3-D shapes. Such microparticles have potential applications in medical devices, drug delivery, MEMS, photonic materials and ion sources. Finally, we will establish the principles for using these nanofluidic networks to carry out chemical reactions on the attolitre scale.

Planned Impact

Academic beneficiaries are an important set of intermediaries in the long-term economic and societal impact of this project. This project starts virtually 'from scratch' and aims to establish a firm experimental and theoretical grounding for droplet deformation and transport. While we have identified two areas of application that we will develop in our project - microfabrication of complex plastic objects and chemical reactions in nanofluidics networks - the full potential of this work will only be realised when other academic groups adopt our ideas and methods and apply them to a broad range of applications. We have described the academic communities we believe will benefit from this project in the previous section. In commercial applications, microscopic plastic shapes with appropriate mechanical properties could be used as components in micromechanical systems, for example as valves, gears or actuators, and as tissue engineering scaffolds. Polymer components have the advantage over ceramics of lower coefficients of friction. A specific application of shaped polymer particles is the fabrication of targets for ion beam production, which is being developed as part of the Basic Technology LIBRA consortium. Self-assembly of shaped particles into regular arrays could have applications as photonic bandgap materials in optoelectronics; to date most colloidal self-assembly has been limited to spheres. Micromechanical components have applications in medical devices, both for microbiological research and potentially in microsurgery. Chemical and biochemical reactions in femtolitre vessels is of particular interest in pharmacological and radiological research, where the high toxicity of materials (or limited availability) favours reactions on the smallest practical scale - this is one of the drivers for current lab-on-a-chip research. The future development of new ultra-small-scale technologies that combine chemical reactions at the attolitre scale with solid-state technology will require an understanding of how complex chemical and physical phenomena occur at these previously unattainable levels of detail. Membrane nanotubular connections have recently been identified as dynamic junctions between cells that provide a new route for HIV-1 transmission, vesicular transport between macrophages and long distance communication between killer cells and target cells. Unfortunately progress in this field is hampered by our understanding of material transfer at this length scale and a lack of tools with which to generate these connections in-vitro. This project will directly address both these technological bottlenecks. Current proteomic technologies are limited with respect to absolute quantification of protein levels and drug efficacy assays including toxicological responses often miss rare but important events as result of working with large populations and limited control of spatial delivery. Researchers at IC have already demonstrated that nanotube connections between microdroplets and target cells can be used as platforms for undertaking proteomics ( Nanodigestion ) - in effect performing biopsies at the single cell level. This work in this proposal will make it possible to deliver material to a spatially defined location of a single cell by using the trapping lasers to pump material from the microdroplet to the cell. Such single cell tools are indispensible to the study of rare cells such as stem cells and progenitor cells that do not lend themselves to high throughput protocols.


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Description The detailed report previously filed here has been deleted by ReseachFish. Brief findings:
(i) shaping of oil droplets with laser beams and 3D reconstruction of shapes with confocal microscopy and structured illumination
(2) microfluidic generation of ultralow interfacial tension droplets and characterisation of the IFT by fluctuation analysis
(3) development of a holographic SLM trapping rig to manipulate shapes of droplets and to create nanofluidic networks
(4) response of trapped droplets to temperature and an improved understanding of how the phase behaviour of the microemulsion influences the properties of the trapped droplets
(5) theoretical model for stability of nanothreads and of flow through nanothreads
Exploitation Route Our findings are of interest in oil-field applications (surfactant-enhanced oil recovery) where ultralow o/w interfacial tensions are encountered.
Sectors Chemicals,Energy

Description The key aims of the grant have been to develop novel high-throughput strategies for the manufacture of ultra-low tension droplets with control of size and composition. In the presence of optical traps ultra-low tension droplets (ULTDs) can be sculpted; such that their shape can be controlled. We have made excellent progress with respect to the generation of ULTDs and the integration of these systems with the optical trapping assemblies. In parallel excellent progress has been made with respect to modelling the behaviour of ULTDs. Building on this foundation we have been exploring applications of ULTDs as building motifs for chemical reactors and shaped nanoparticles. This has included the construction of 3-D nano-networks that can be used as the basis for controlled sequential reactions exploiting oil based chemistries. The ability to manufacture such oil based "labs on a chip" where reagents can systematically be added to a reaction chamber has already attracted strong interest from the biotech sector. The behaviour of ULIFT droplets is of interest to our partners in the oilfield services, though the current low oil price has led to shelving of surfactant-enhanced oil recovery programmes.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Energy,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology
Impact Types Economic

Description Flotek Industries - industry funding
Amount $175,000 (USD)
Organisation Flotek Industries, Inc. 
Sector Private
Country United States
Start 02/2018 
End 08/2022
Description Impact Acceleration Account
Amount £132,000 (GBP)
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2015 
End 11/2016
Description Industry funding - SCR
Amount £49,000 (GBP)
Organisation Schlumberger Limited 
Department Schlumberger Cambridge Research
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2012 
End 03/2016
Description Mass Transport in Ultralow Interfacial Tension Droplet-Nanothread Networks (DNNs) : CLF beamtime
Amount £30,000 (GBP)
Funding ID 17,330,050 
Organisation Rutherford Appleton Laboratory 
Department Central Laser Facility
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2018 
End 06/2018
Description Molecular rotors as quantitative probes of interfacial tension - CLF beamtime
Amount £30,000 (GBP)
Funding ID 16,230,049 
Organisation Rutherford Appleton Laboratory 
Department Central Laser Facility
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2017 
End 06/2017