Microfluidic fabrication of composite hydrogel microparticles in the size range of blood cells†
The fabrication of alginate hydrogel microparticles with embedded liposomes and magnetic nanoparticles for radiofrequency controlled release of encapsulated chemical cargo was considered. An extractive gelation process was implemented in a microfluidic device, which enabled the production of uniform composite microparticles of dimensions comparable to those of blood cells (between 5 and 10 μm). The critical parameters that control the extractive gelation process were systematically explored and feasible values that provide microgel particles of a defined size and morphology were identified. First, the initial water-in-oil droplet is formed in a flow-focusing junction whose size is controlled by the flow-rate of the oil phase. Then, the train of droplets is sandwiched between two streams of oil containing calcium ions. In that way, a flux of water molecules from the droplets towards the continuous phase as well as a transport of calcium ions towards the disperse phase are initiated. The final microparticle properties were thus found to be sensitive to three elementary sub-processes: (i) the initial droplet size; (ii) the extraction of water into the oil phase, which was controlled by the volume of the oil phase and its initial moisture content; and (iii) the kinetics of ionic cross-linking of the alginate matrix, which was controlled by the varying calcium concentration. The size and morphology of the final composite microgels were fully characterized.