Stick–slip water penetration into capillaries coated with swelling hydrogel†
We have observed intriguing stick–slip behavior during capillary pressure driven filling of borosilicate microtubes coated with hydrogel on their inner wall. Swelling of hydrogel upon exposure to a translating waterfront is accompanied by “stick-and-slip” motion. This results in the macroscopic filling velocity for water penetration into glass capillaries coated with poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) (PNIPAM) being constant throughout the filling process, and reduced by three orders of magnitude when compared to filling of uncoated capillaries. A simple scaling analysis is used to introduce a possible explanation by considering the mechanisms responsible for pinning and unpinning of the contact line. The explanation assumes that the time scale for water diffusion into a hydrogel film and the resulting swelling/change of the local meniscus contact angle define the duration of each “stick” event. The “slip” length scale is in turn established by the elastocapillary deformation of dry hydrogel at the pinning point of the contact line. The sequential dynamics of these processes then determine the rate of water filling into a swelling capillary. Collectively, these experimental and theoretical results provide a new conceptual framework for liquid motion confined by soft, dynamically evolving polymer interfaces, in which the system creates an energy barrier to further motion through elasto-capillary deformation, and then lowers the barrier through diffusive softening. This insight has implications for optimal design of microfluidic and lab-on-a-chip devices based on stimuli-responsive smart polymers.