Making waves with molecules
In short, Professor Nicholas Abbott's microfluidics research is making waves. Through his work, Abbott hopes to create processes that will enable scientists to control the surface properties of liquids as a function of time and position, and create controlled gradients through an externally manipulated variable.
Abbott (right) and graduate student Craig Rosslee (left) are addressing problems associated with scaling integrated chemical processes to submillimeter scales, and their discoveries may impact both the medical and agricultural industries. Rather than using the more inefficient shaking method conducive to mixing macroscale reactants, scientists eventually may be able to use the results of Abbott's research to rapidly transport and mix reagents within millimeter and smaller-scale droplets of liquid supported on surfaces by creating gradients in surface tension. The method will thus provide new processes for molecule screening technologies used in medical drug discovery. "Our interest in this topic is largely derived from the fact that many phenomena involving the motion of liquids on millimeter and smaller scales are dominated by the effects of surfaces," says Abbott.
They are designing and synthesizing water-soluble detergentlike molecules, and by using electrochemical and photophysical methods, they can create a surface gradient in a solution by switching the molecules between surface active and inactive states. They also can vary the molecules' transformation rates, manipulate the location in which the switches occur, and use illumination to control the molecules' size and shape.
In related research, Abbott is revealing principles for creating microscale total analysis systems, which scientists might use to rapidly test agricultural chemicals on the spot--rather than transporting them to a lab--and control their application.