A normally-open thermally-actuated microvalve was designed (using microfabrication/soft-lithography techniques involving 3D Printed molds), assembled and tested. The motivation of the research work is to develop an array of microvalves for precise delivery of water to individual plants in a field (with the goal of developing smart irrigation systems for high value cash-crops in the agricultural sector). It is currently impossible to control application of irrigation-water at the level of a single plant. If such a capability were practically available on farms, the result would be a step change in precision agriculture, such that the output of every plant in a farm field could be optimized (i.e., food-water-energy nexus in sustainability applications). The aim of this study is to develop and test a microfluidic system (consisting of a microvalve array) that could be controlled, capillary by capillary, to deliver the needed amount of water to individual plants in a large field.

Two types of test fluids were leveraged for thermo-hydraulic actuation of the microvalves developed in this study: (a) Design-I: using air, and (b) Design-II: using Phase Change Material (PCM). The PCM used in this study is PureTemp29. The proposed approach enabled a simple and cheap design for microvalves that can be manufactured easily and are robust to weather conditions (e.g., when exposed to the elements in orchards and open fields). Other advantages include: safe and reliable operation; low power consumption; can tolerate anomalous pressure loads/fluctuations; simple actuation; affords easy control schemes; is amenable for remote control; provides long-term reliability (life-cycle duration estimated to be 3∼5 years); can be mass produced and is low maintenance (possibly requiring no maintenance over the life time of operation).

The microvalve consists of two layers: a flow layer and a control layer. The control layer is heated from below and contains a microfluidic chamber with a flexible polymeric thin-membrane (200 microns in thickness) on top. The device is microfabricated from Poly-Di-Methyl-Siloxane (PDMS) using soft lithography techniques (using a 3D Printed mold). The control chamber contains either air (thermo-pneumatic actuation) or PCM (thermo-hydraulic actuation involving repeated melting/freezing of PCM). The flow layer contains the flow channel (inlet and outlet ports, horizontal section and valve seat). The experimental results from testing the efficacy of the two types of micro-valves show a 60% reduction (for thermo-pneumatic actuation using air) and 40% reduction (for thermo-hydraulic actuation using PCM) in water flow rates for similar actuation conditions (i.e., heater temperature values). PCM design is expected to consume less power (lower OPEX) for long-term actuation but may have slower actuation speed and have higher manufacturing costs (CAPEX). Air actuation design is expected to consume more power (higher OPEX) for longer-term operation but may have faster actuation speeds and lower manufacturing costs (CAPEX). Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) simulations were performed to investigate the effect of flowing water (in the microfluidic channel) on the average absolute pressure and temperature of air in the actuation chamber. The CFD simulations were performed using a commercial tool (Ansys™ 2019R1®). The results from the CFD simulations are presented in this study.

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