This paper describes a simple microfluidic sorting system that can perform size profiling and continuous mass-dependent separation of particles through combined use of gravity (1 g) and hydrodynamic flows capable of rapidly amplifying sedimentation-based separation between particles. Operation of the device relies on two microfluidic transport processes: (i) initial hydrodynamic focusing of particles in a microchannel oriented parallel to gravity and (ii) subsequent sample separation where positional difference between particles with different mass generated by sedimentation is further amplified by hydrodynamic flows whose streamlines gradually widen out due to the geometry of a widening microchannel oriented perpendicular to gravity. The microfluidic sorting device was fabricated in poly(dimethylsiloxane), and hydrodynamic flows in microchannels were driven by gravity without using external pumps. We conducted theoretical and experimental studies on fluid dynamic characteristics of laminar flows in widening microchannels and hydrodynamic amplification of particle separation. Direct trajectory monitoring, collection, and postanalysis of separated particles were performed using polystyrene microbeads with different sizes to demonstrate rapid (<1 min) and high-purity (>99.9%) separation. Finally, we demonstrated biomedical applications of our system by isolating small-sized (diameter <6 μm) perfluorocarbon liquid droplets from polydisperse droplet emulsions, which is crucial in preparing contrast agents for safe, reliable ultrasound medical imaging, tracers for magnetic resonance imaging, or transpulmonary droplets used in ultrasound-based occlusion therapy for cancer treatment. Our method enables straightforward, rapid, real-time size monitoring and continuous separation of particles in simple stand-alone microfabricated devices without the need for bulky and complex external power sources. We believe that this system will provide a useful tool to separate colloids and particles for various analytical and preparative applications and may hold potential for separation of cells or development of diagnostic tools requiring point-of-care sample preparation or testing.
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