Tuna-step: tunable parallelized step emulsification for the generation of droplets with dynamic volume control to 3D print functionally graded porous materials

We present tuna-step, a novel microfluidic module based on step emulsification that allows for reliable generation of droplets of different sizes. Until now, sizes of droplets generated with step emulsification were hard-wired into the geometry of the step emulsification nozzle. To overcome this, we incorporate a thin membrane underneath the step nozzle that can be actuated by pressure, enabling the tuning of the nozzle size on-demand. By controllably reducing the height of the nozzle, we successfully achieved a three-order-of-magnitude variation in droplet volume without adjusting the flow rates of the two phases. We developed and applied a new hydrophilic surface modification, that ensured long-term stability and prevented swelling of the device when generating oil-in-water droplets. Our system produced functionally graded soft materials with adjustable porosity and material content. By combining our microfluidic device with a custom 3D printer, we generated and extruded oil-in-water emulsions in an agarose gel bath, creating unique self-standing 3D hydrogel structures with porosity decoupled from flow rate and with composition gradients of external phases. We upscaled tuna-step by setting 14 actuatable nozzles in parallel, offering a step-emulsification-based single chip solution that can accommodate various requirements in terms of throughput, droplet volumes, flow rates, and surface chemistry.
Lab Chip, 2024, Advance Article. DOI: 10.1039/d3lc00658a
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