Self-assembled materials and supramolecular chemistry within microfluidic environments: from common thermodynamic states to non-equilibrium structures
Self-assembly is a crucial component in the bottom-up fabrication of hierarchical supramolecular structures and advanced functional materials. Control has traditionally relied on the use of encoded building blocks bearing suitable moieties for recognition and interaction, with targeting of the thermodynamic equilibrium state. On the other hand, nature leverages the control of reaction–diffusion processes to create hierarchically organized materials with surprisingly complex biological functions. Indeed, under non-equilibrium conditions (kinetic control), the spatio-temporal command of chemical gradients and reactant mixing during self-assembly (the creation of non-uniform chemical environments for example) can strongly affect the outcome of the self-assembly process. This directly enables a precise control over material properties and functions. In this tutorial review, we show how the unique physical conditions offered by microfluidic technologies can be advantageously used to control the self-assembly of materials and of supramolecular aggregates in solution, making possible the isolation of intermediate states and unprecedented non-equilibrium structures, as well as the emergence of novel functions. Selected examples from the literature will be used to confirm that microfluidic devices are an invaluable toolbox technology for unveiling, understanding and steering self-assembly pathways to desired structures, properties and functions, as well as advanced processing tools for device fabrication and integration.