Microfluidic devices – such as those used by individuals with diabetes to monitor their blood glucose levels – are all about transport. Typically, these devices use some kind of externally applied force, like a temperature gradient or electrical field, to force liquids through the device’s narrow channels. But a new study describes a way to move droplets without an external force.

The researchers built their devices using two slips of glass, coated with an oil-attracting, water-repellent mixture. They attached the glass slips with a narrow spacer at one end, leaving the other end free. This made a narrow, but slightly flexible gap. When the scientists placed an oil drop inside the closed end, it spread on the glass, pulling the two sides closer to one another. Water drops, on the other hand, tried to force the walls apart, in an effort to minimize contact. Both sets of drops, interestingly, moved toward the open end of the device.

The researchers found that the shapes assumed by the droplets create an internal pressure gradient, which, in both cases, slowly moves the drops. They call this method bendotaxis, a type of self-propulsion driven by the drops’ ability to bend the material they’re touching. It’s not a fast way to transport fluids – the drops moved only a few micrometers per second – but it may be useful for applications like drug deliveries where the liquid needs to be administered slowly over a longer period. (Image credit: TesaPhotography; research credit: A. Bradley et al.; via APS Physics; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)