Steering Liquid Metal Flow in Microchannels Using Low Voltages


Liquid metals based on gallium, such as eutectic gallium indium (EGaIn) and Galinstan, have been integrated as static components in microfluidic systems for a wide range of applications including soft electrodes, pumps, and stretchable electronics. However, there is also a possibility to continuously pump liquid metal into microchannels to create shape reconfigurable metallic structures. Enabling this concept necessitates a simple method to control dynamically the path the metal takes through branched microchannels with multiple outlets. This paper demonstrates a novel method for controlling the directional flow of EGaIn liquid metal in complex microfluidic networks by simply applying a low voltage to the metal. According to the polarity of the voltage applied between the inlet and an outlet, two distinct mechanisms can occur. The voltage can lower the interfacial tension of the metal via electrocapillarity to facilitate the flow of the metal towards outlets containing counter electrodes. Alternatively, the voltage can drive surface oxidation of the metal to form a mechanical impediment that redirects the movement of the metal towards alternative pathways. Thus, the method can be employed like a ‘valve’ to direct the pathway chosen by the metal without mechanical moving parts. The paper elucidates the operating mechanisms of this valving system and demonstrates proof-of-concept control over the flow of liquid metal towards single or multiple directions simultaneously. This method provides a simple route to direct the flow of liquid metal for applications in microfluidics, optics, electronics, and microelectromechanical systems.

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