Droplet microfluidics with a nanoemulsion continuous phase†
We present the first study of a novel, generalizable method that uses a water-in-oil nanoemulsion as the continuous phase to generate uniform aqueous micro-droplets in a capillary-based microfluidic system. We first study the droplet generation mechanism in this system and compare it to the more conventional case where a simple oil/solvent (with surfactant) is used as the continuous phase. Next, we present two versatile methods – adding demulsifying chemicals and heat treatment – to allow active online chemical interaction between the continuous and dispersed phases. These methods allow each generated micro-droplet to act as a well-mixed micro-reactor with walls that are ‘permeable’ to the nanoemulsion droplets and their contents. Finally, we demonstrate an application of this system in the fabrication of uniform hydrogel (alginate) micro-beads with control over particle properties such as size and swelling. Our work expands the toolbox of droplet-based microfluidics, enabling new opportunities and applications involving active colloidal continuous phases carrying chemical payloads, both in advanced materials synthesis and droplet-based screening and diagnostic methods.