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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Sep 18;115(38):9479-9484. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1803644115. Epub 2018 Sep 5.

Wetting controls of droplet formation in step emulsification.

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School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.
Physics of Environmental Systems, Department of Environmental System Sciences, ETH Zürich, 8092 Zürich, Switzerland.
Complex Materials, Department of Materials, ETH Zürich, 8093 Zürich, Switzerland.
Complex Materials, Department of Materials, ETH Zürich, 8093 Zürich, Switzerland


The formation of droplets is ubiquitous in many natural and industrial processes and has reached an unprecedented level of control with the emergence of milli- and microfluidics. Although important insight into the mechanisms of droplet formation has been gained over the past decades, a sound understanding of the physics underlying this phenomenon and the effect of the fluid's flow and wetting properties on the droplet size and production rate is still missing, especially for the widely applied method of step emulsification. In this work, we elucidate the physical controls of microdroplet formation in step emulsification by using the wetting of fluidic channels as a tunable parameter to explore a broad set of emulsification conditions. With the help of high-speed measurements, we unequivocally show that the final droplet pinch-off is triggered by a Rayleigh-Plateau-type instability. The droplet size, however, is not determined by the Rayleigh-Plateau breakup, but by the initial wetting regime, where the fluid's contact angle plays a crucial role. We develop a physical theory for the wetting process, which closely describes our experimental measurements without invoking any free fit parameter. Our theory predicts the initiation of the Rayleigh-Plateau breakup and the transition from dripping to jetting as a function of the fluid's contact angle. Additionally, the theory solves the conundrum why there is a minimal contact angle of α = 2π/3 = 120° for which droplets can form.


contact angle; droplet formation; microfluidics; step emulsification; surface wetting

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