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Digital microfluidics is an alternative technology for lab-on-a-chip systems based upon micromanipulation of discrete droplets. Microfluidic processing is performed on unit-sized packets of fluid which are transported, stored, mixed, reacted, or analyzed in a discrete manner using a standard set of basic instructions.
In analogy to digital microelectronics, these basic instructions can be combined and reused within hierarchical design structures so that complex procedures (e.g. chemical synthesis or biological assays) can be built up step-by-step. And in contrast to continuous-flow microfluidics, digital microfluidics works much the same way as traditional bench-top protocols, only with much smaller volumes and much higher automation. Thus a wide range of established chemistries and protocols can be seamlessly transferred to a nanoliter droplet format. Electrowetting, dielectrophoresis, and immiscible-fluid flows are the three most commonly used principles, which have been used to generate and manipulate microdroplets in a digital microfluidic device.
Droplets are formed using the surface tension properties of liquid. For example, water placed on a hydrophobic surface will lower its contact with the surface by creating drops whose contact angle with the substrate will increase as the hydrophobicity increases. However, in some cases it is possible to control the hydrophobicity of the substrate by using electrical fields. This is referred to as "Electrowetting On Dielectric" or EWOD. In thin layers of Teflon AF, FluoroPel V-polymer or CYTOP, for example, while no field is applied the surface will be extremely hydrophobic and a droplet of water will try to 'stay away' from the surface, resulting in a droplet with steep walls. When a field is applied, a polarized hydrophilic surface is created, and the water droplet tries to 'get closer' to the surface, resulting in much more spread out droplet. By controlling the localization of this polarisation it is possible to control the displacement of the droplet.
In one of various embodiments of EWOD-based microfluidic biochips, investigated first by Cytonix in 1987  and subsequently commercialized by Advanced Liquid Logic, there are two parallel glass plates, and the bottom plate contains a patterned array of individually controllable electrodes, and the top plate is coated with a continuous grounding electrode. A dielectric insulator coated with a hydrophobic is added to the plates to decrease the wettability of the surface and to add capacitance between the droplet and the control electrode. The droplet containing biochemical samples and the filler medium, such as the silicone oil, a fluorinated oil or air are sandwiched between the plates; the droplets travel inside the filler medium. In order to move a droplet, a control voltage is applied to an electrode adjacent to the droplet, and at the same time, the electrode just under the droplet is deactivated. By varying the electric potential along a linear array of electrodes, electrowetting can be used to move droplets along this line of electrodes.
- C.-J. Kim, “Micropumping by Electrowetting”, Proc. ASME Int. Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition, New York, NY, Nov. 2001, IMECE2001/HTD-24200
- Chang, H.C.; Yeo, L. (2009). Electrokinetically Driven Microfluidics and Nanofluidics. Cambridge University Press.
- Kirby, B.J. (2010). Micro- and Nanoscale Fluid Mechanics: Transport in Microfluidic Devices. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-11903-0.
- UBC Okanagan Digital Microfluidics
- Keck Graduate Institute Microfluidics Laboratory
- Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization Prof. Stephan Herminghaus, Dr. Ralf Seemann Group
- Wheeler Digital Microfluidics Group at the University of Toronto
- Digital Microfluidics at Duke University
- The University of Chicago
- Harvard - Weitz Group
- Digital Microfluidics at University of California, Irvine
- Applications of Digital Microfluidics - Garrell Group at UCLA
- UCLA Micromanufacturing Laboratory - Kim Group at UCLA
- IMNS - The University of Edinburgh