Smart hydrogels as storage elements with dispensing functionality in discontinuous microfluidic systems†
Smart hydrogels are useful elements in microfluidic systems because they respond to environmental stimuli and are capable of storing reagents. We present here a concept of using hydrogels (poly(N-isopropylacrylamide)) as an interface between continuous and discontinuous microfluidics. Their swelling and shrinking capabilities allow them to act as storage elements for reagents absorbed in the swelling process. When the swollen hydrogel collapses in an oil-filled channel, the incorporated water and molecules are expelled from the hydrogel and form a water reservoir. Water-in-oil droplets can be released from the reservoir generating different sized droplets depending on the flow regime at various oil flow rates (dispensing functionality). Different hydrogel sizes and microfluidic structures are discussed in terms of their storage and droplet formation capabilities. The time behaviour of the hydrogel element is investigated by dynamic swelling experiments and computational fluid dynamics simulations. By precise temperature control, the device acts as an active droplet generator and converts continuous to discontinuous flows.