The health of a plant’s vasculature depends on its capacity to respond to environmental stimuli. Plant inspired synthetic microfluidic systems have only rarely demonstrated their environmental responsiveness. In a new report now published in Science Advances, Yi Pan and a team of researchers in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Hong Kong, China, introduced bioinspired transformable microfluidics with stimuli-responsive materials embedded to respond to temperature, humidity, and light irradiance. The team designed a foldable geometry and named the device TransfOrigami microfluidics, abbreviated as TOM, to highlight the connection between its transformation and origami structure for use as an environmentally adaptive photonic reactor. The device sensed the environmental stimuli to provide positive feedback for photosynthetic conversion via morphological transformation. The team envision expanding this microsystem to broader applications, including artificial vascular networks and flexible electronics.
Plants have a rich and complex vasculature to transport water and nutrients through tissues to maintain normal metabolism. For instance, veins in leaves can deliver the nutrients produced by photosynthesis throughout the leaflet for transportation. These developments can be used to form artificial systems with embedded fluidic channels including biomimetic microfluidic devices. Plants can evolve their response to environmental changes to function well in an ever-changing natural environment. The potential to sense external environments and adjust is known as environmental adaptability relative to changes in light, temperature and humidity. In this work, Pan et al were bioinspired by plants with stimuli-responsive structures to realize this concept as a transformable microfluidic chip with stimuli-responsive materials on a thin and foldable architecture. Their TransfOrigami microfluidics method is suited for an environmentally adaptive photo-microreactor. The product can inspire applications in energy, robotics, and medicine with adaptive rhythmic movements.
Transformable origami microfluidics
The team observed the daytime plant Oxalis corniculata, which can deploy its leaflets for sun exposure and close at night by folding the leaflets. Based on this inspiration, Pan et al adopted a thin and foldable origami structure for the device. The team selected the choice of responsive materials, where silicon elastomers provided a well-established soft lithography method to support its microfabrication. They integrated stimuli-responsive morphing origami into a thin microfluidic chip to create TOM (TransfOrigami) via conventional soft lithography with some modifications. The origami structure allowed flexible conversion between a 2D flat state and a 3D compact form to create 3D fluid motion. The scientists demonstrated the concept by developing a thin microfluidic device that modified previous examples. The team first created a mold with microchannel patterns via photolithography, then spin-coated a thin-layer of polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) pre-polymer on the mold. They repeated a similar step and developed hollowed-out regions for a resulting thin microfluidic device trimmed to the designed shape. The team partitioned the device into three regions, including diagonal actuators, light-harvesting panels, and center actuators. Then, using scanning electron microscopy, they identified the components, alongside energy dispersive X-ray mapping to confirm the constituent elements. Pan et al observed a strong adhesion between the thermal-responsive hydrogel poly (N-isopropylacrylamide) (pNIPAM) and the PDMS constituent polymers of the device. They highlighted the light transmissive regions with light-harvesting panels, while serpentine channels facilitated the device’s functionality.
Environmentally responsive morphing of TransfOrigami (TOM)
The team next quantified the folding and unfolding performance of the TOM. When exposed to light irradiation, the TOM gradually unfolded, whereas in low-temperature and high humidity it gradually began to fold. Pan et al quantified the environmental responsiveness of TOM by measuring the unfold percentage under different situations under different temperatures or light illumination. The temperature continued to play a role in high humidity environments. In theory, a thicker pNIPAM actuating layer and thinner PDMS passive layer increased the degree of deformation of the TransfOrigami device. To achieve this in practice, the researchers designed the polymers to be thickest and thinnest, respectively, while including photothermal dopants such as graphene nanoplatelets to PDMS, to realize photothermal responsive actuation. The team adopted the halogen lamp as a simulator of sunlight to cover the wavelength range consistent with sunlight, excluding UV. Subsequently, photochemical reactions and thermal effects formed the photothermal conversion of the device, and the team tested them under sunny and rainy days in a natural outdoor climate, with potential for outdoor applications.
Applications of TOM: Adaptive photosynthesis
The research team next built a setup with a syringe pump, reaction chamber and an optical flow cell to monitor photosynthesis flow through the TOM (TransfOrigami) device, to experimentally verify the effect of TOM morphing on photoreaction. During these experiments, Pan et al simplified the expected environment for photosynthesis according to the values of illuminance, temperature and humidity to adapt for diverse outputs. The more favorable conditions of photoreaction allowed higher rates of conversion to be reached. The self-sustainable system could harvest, conserve, manage and use the limited energy.
In this way, Yi Pan and colleagues designed a morphing microfluidic device to transform from 2D to 3D, or between different 3D structures, where the dynamic switching ultimately added a dimension of time for a four dimensional (4D) concept. The 4D microfluidic device regulated fluid behavior via the reconstruction of microchannels with diverse properties, orientations, mixing efficiencies and flow rates. The pioneering, plant-inspired morphing origami microfluidics can fulfill adaptive photosynthesis by coordinating stimuli-responsive morphing-materials integrated within the setup. The team developed the construct using self-actuating elastomers responsive to ambient temperature, humidity and light irradiance. Pan et al applied the morphing to regulate photosynthetic conversion with a built-in positive feedback control in the system. The scientists envision the resulting smart microfluidics-based intelligent systems to pave the way to develop intelligent soft devices and artificial vasculature in biomedicine.
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