Nanoparticles have attracted a lot of attention in the past few decades due to their unique, size-dependent properties. In order to use these nanoparticles in devices or sensors effectively, it is important to maintain uniform properties throughout the system; therefore nanoparticles need to have uniform sizes – or monodisperse. In order to achieve monodispersity, an extreme control over the reaction conditions is required during their synthesis. These reaction conditions such as temperature, concentration of reagents, residence times, etc. affect the structure of nanoparticles dramatically; therefore when the conditions vary locally in the reaction vessel, different sized nanoparticles form, causing polydispersity.
In widely-used batch wise synthesis techniques, large sized reaction vessels are used to mix and heat reagents. In these types of systems, it is very hard to avoid thermal gradients and to achieve rapid mixing times as well as to control residence times. Also it is not possible to make rapid changes in the reaction parameters during the synthesis. The other drawback of conventional methods is that it is not possible to separate the nucleation of nanoparticles from their growth; this leads to combined nucleation and growth and subsequently results in polydisperse size distributions.
Microfluidics is an alternative method by which the limitations of conventional techniques can be addressed. Due to the small size, it is possible to control temperature and concentration of reagents precisely as well as to make rapid changes in mixing ratios of reagents or temperature of the reaction zones. There have been several microfluidic reactors – (microreactors) in literature that were designed to improve the size distribution of nanoparticles.
In this work, two novel microfluidic systems were developed for achieving controlled synthesis of nanoparticles. The first microreactor was made out of a chemically robust polymer, polyurethane, and it was used for low temperature nanoparticle synthesis. This microreactor was fabricated by using a CO2-laser printer, which is an inexpensive method for fabricating microfluidic devices and it is a relatively fast way compared to other fabrication techniques. Iron oxide nanoparticle synthesis was demonstrated using this reactor and size distributions with a standard deviation of 10% was obtained.
The second microreactor presented in this work was designed to produce monodisperse nanoparticles by utilizing thermally isolated heated and cooled regions for separating nucleation and growth processes. This microreactor was made out of silicon and it was used to demonstrate the synthesis of TiO2 nanoparticles. Size distributions with less than 10% standard deviation were achieved. This microreactor also provides a platform for studying the effects of temperature and residence times which is very important to understand the reaction kinetics of nanoparticle synthesis.
In this work, two microfluidic techniques for retrieving nanoparticles from the microreactors were also discussed. The first method was based on trapping the aqueous droplet phase inside the microchannel and the second method was utilizing a micropost array to direct droplets from the oil solution to the pure water.
As a final step, a printing technique was used to print nanoparticles synthesized inside the microreactors for future applications. This ability is important for achieving smart surfaces that can utilize the properties of nanoparticles for sensing applications in the future.