One of the challenges of dealing with objects at the microscale is finding ways to manipulate them. This is what techniques like optical tweezers or magnetic traps are used for. The downside to these methods is that they often require complex experimental set-ups or place restrictions on the kinds of particles that can be manipulated. Recently, however, researchers have developed a new hydrodynamic alternative: the Stokes trap.
Using a six-channel microfluidic device like the the ones shown in A) and B) above, scientists can alter the flow in the device in such a way that they trap and manipulate two particles at the same time. The simultaneous inflow and outflow in the device creates streamlines like those shown in C) and D) above. The large white areas where the streamlines converge and diverge are stagnation points–areas of little to no velocity. The scientists trap their particles at the stagnation points and then carefully shift the flow rates into and out of the device to move the stagnation points–with particles in tow–wherever they want them. In the animation, you can see part of a movie where they use the particles to write out a capital I (for University of Illinois). The researchers hope the technique will be used in the future for studying the physics of soft materials and biologically-relevant molecules like DNA. For more, check out the full paper or the group’s website. (Image credit and submission: C. Schroeder et al.)