[Thesis]Tetra-Responsive Grafted Hydrogels for Flow Control in Microfluidics
Microfluidics covers the science of manipulating small quantities of fluids using microscale devices with great potential in analysis, multiplexing, automation and high-throughput screening. Compared to conventional systems, microfluidics benefits from miniaturization resulting in shortened time of experiments, decreased sample and reagent consumptions as well as reduced overall costs. For microfluidic devices where further weight and cost reduction is additionally required, stimuli-responsive hydrogels are particularly interesting materials since they can convert an environmental stimulus directly to mechanical work without any extra power source. Hydrogels are used as chemostats, micropumps, and chemo-mechanical valves in microfluidics. Existing studies about hydrogels for flow control reported on hydrogels responsive to only one stimulus, including temperature, pH value, and solvent. Combining temperature and pH stimuli within one material is an interesting approach, which allows internal as well as external flow control and broadens potential applications. Among the variety of temperature- and pH-responsive monomers, N-isopropylacrylamide (NiPAAm) and acrylic acid (AA) are considered as ideal building blocks to obtain a hydrogel with pronounced stimuli response. There are different architectures for realizing a temperature- and pH-responsive hydrogel with NiPAAm and AA (e.g. copolymer gels, interpenetrating polymer networks (IPNs), semi-IPNs, or graft copolymer gels). Each approach has its inherent benefits and disadvantages. Grafted hydrogels with a temperature-responsive backbone and pH-responsive graft chains are a promising architecture overcoming drawbacks of copolymer gels (loss of thermoresponsive behavior due to the comonomer), interpenetrating polymer networks (IPNs, difficult fabrication of structured particles via soft lithography), and semi-IPNs (leakage of penetrating polymer). However, studies about multi-responsive grafted hydrogels for flow control in microfluidics are comparatively rare and further research is needed to emphasize their real potential. For this reason, the overall aim of this work was the synthesis of temperature- and pH-responsive grafted hydrogels based on NiPAAm and AA for flow control in microfluidics. This required the synthesis of a pH-responsive macromonomer by RAFT polymerization. As a suitable chain transfer agent with a carboxylic acid group for an end-group functionalization, 2-(dodecyl-thiocarbonothioylthio)-2-methylpropionic (DTP) acid was employed. The approach towards the synthesis of the pH-responsive macromonomer based on two key steps: (i) attaching a functional group, which retains during RAFT polymerization, and (ii) conducting the RAFT polymerization to synthesize the pH-responsive macromonomer. In total, four functionalizations for the macromonomer were investigated, including allyl, unconjugated vinyl, acrylamide, and styrene. End-group analysis and solubility tests revealed that macromonomers with a styrene functionalization are suitable for the synthesis of graft copolymer gels. A series of grafted net-PNiPAAm-g-PAA-styrene hydrogels with a PNiPAAm backbone and PAA-styrene graft chains (Mn = 4200 g/mol, Mw/Mn = 1.6) were prepared and characterized. The main goal was to identify suitable stimuli for an application as a chemo-mechanical valve and to show reversibility of the swelling and shrinking process. Importantly, the temperature sensitivity should be retained, while a pH response needs to be introduced. Equilibrium swelling studies quantified with the response ratio revealed that a grafting density of PAA-styrene between 0.25 and 1 mol-% provides a suitable response towards temperature, pH, salt, and solvent. Furthermore, the swelling and shrinking process is highly reproducible over four consecutive cycles for all four stimuli. In order to evaluate the swelling kinetics of grafted net-PNiPAAm-g-PAA-styrene hydrogels, the collective diffusion model extended by a volume specific surface was applied. The determined cooperative diffusion coefficients of net-PNiPAAm-g-PAA-styrene indicated faster response time with increasing PAA-styrene content. Remarkably, net-PNiPAAm-g-PAA-styrene containing 1 mol-% PAA-styrene exhibited an accelerated swelling rate by a factor of 9 compared to pure net-PNiPAAm. Rheological analysis of net-PNiPAAm-g-PAA-styrene showed that an increasing graft density leads to decreasing mechanical stability. The photopolymerization experiments showed that the gelation time linearly increases with the grafting density. Grafted net-PNiPAAm-g-PAA-styrene hydrogels were tested in two fluidic setups for flow control. A straightforward fluidic platform was developed consisting of a fluid reservoir, an inlet channel, an actuator chamber and an outlet channel. The actuator chamber was filled with crushed hydrogel particles. Accordingly, the fluid flow was directed by the active resistance of the hydrogel particles in the actuator chamber (i.e. swelling degree) and allowed flow control by the local environmental conditions. Flow rate studies showed that the fluid flow throttles when the inlet channel was provided with a solution in which the hydrogel swells (pH 9 buffer solution at room temperature). In contrast, the hydrogel-based valve opens immediately when a solution was used in which the hydrogel collapses. The advantageous properties of net-PNiPAAm-g-PAA-styrene were highlighted by using pH, salt and solvent stimulus in one experiment. Remarkably, the opening and closing function was reversible over six consecutive cycles. As part of a collaboration project with the chair of polymeric microsystems within the Cluster of Excellence Center for Advancing Electronics Dresden (A. Richter and P. Frank), membrane assures hydraulic coupling in a chemo-fluidic membrane transistor (CFMT) and grafted net-PNiPAAm-g-PAA-styrene hydrogels were combined to emphasize the potential of both systems. Flow rate studies showed that 4 different stimuli can be used to control the opening and closing state of the CFMT. Multiple opening and closing cycles revealed no considerable changes in the valve function emphasizing a high potential for an application in microfluidics.
chemofluidic valve, graft copolymer gels, hydrogel-based valve, hydrogels, microfluidics, multi-responsive gels