Sheathless hydrodynamic positioning of buoyant drops and bubbles inside microchannels

Claudiu A. Stan, Laura Guglielmini, Audrey K. Ellerbee, Daniel Caviezel, Howard A. Stone, George M. Whitesides

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


Particles, bubbles, and drops carried by a fluid in a confined environment such as a pipe can be subjected to hydrodynamic lift forces, i.e., forces that are perpendicular to the direction of the flow. We investigated the positioning effect of lift forces acting on buoyant drops and bubbles suspended in a carrier fluid and flowing in a horizontal microchannel. We report experiments on drops of water in fluorocarbon liquid, and on bubbles of nitrogen in hydrocarbon liquid and silicone oil, inside microchannels with widths on the order of 0.1-1 mm. Despite their buoyancy, drops and bubbles could travel without contacting with the walls of channels; the most important parameters for reaching this flow regime in our experiments were the viscosity and the velocity of the carrier fluid, and the sizes of drops and bubbles. The dependencies of the transverse position of drops and bubbles on these parameters were investigated. At steady state, the trajectories of drops and bubbles approached the center of the channel for drops and bubbles almost as large as the channel, carried by rapidly flowing viscous liquids; among our experiments, these flow conditions were characterized by larger capillary numbers and smaller Reynolds numbers. Analytical models of lift forces developed for the flow of drops much smaller than the width of the channel failed to predict their transverse position, while computational fluid dynamic simulations of the experiments agreed better with the experimental measurements. The degrees of success of these predictions indicate the importance of confinement on generating strong hydrodynamic lift forces. We conclude that, inside microfluidic channels, it is possible to support and position buoyant drops and bubbles simply by flowing a single-stream (i.e., "sheathless") carrier liquid that has appropriate velocity and hydrodynamic properties.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number036302
JournalPhysical Review E - Statistical, Nonlinear, and Soft Matter Physics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 6 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Statistical and Nonlinear Physics
  • Statistics and Probability


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