Characterizing the mainly incompressible and laminar flows of aqueous electrolyte solutions through channels with an overall dimension of O(1–100 μm) is of interest in a variety of microfluidics applications. Solid surfaces such as the channel wall become (usually negatively) charged due to direct ionization or dissociation of surface groups, where the charge is typically characterized by the wall zeta-potential ζw. The surface in turn attracts mobile counterions from the fluid to form a (usually positively) charged screening, or electric double, layer (EDL).
An external electric field can therefore be used to “pump” fluids through microfluidic Labs-on-a-Chip (LOC) by driving the charged fluid in the EDL. The resulting electroosmotic flow (EOF) is uniform outside the EDL, which has a thickness less than 50 nm in most cases. This uniform flow results in a more favorable scaling of the volume flowrate with channel diameter for microchannels, and also has less convective dispersion than shear flows. Electroosmotic flow is, however, very sensitive to changes in ζw. Various studies have shown, for example, that adding multivalent counterions to a monovalent electrolyte solution can greatly change ζw through both electrostatic and chemical interactions, even leading to “charge inversion” where the zeta-potential changes its sign.
Evanescent-wave particle velocimetry, which tracks the motion of colloidal fluorescent tracer particles illuminated by evanescent waves within ∼400 nm of the wall, was therefore used to study the flow of various aqueous monovalent electrolyte solutions with small amounts of divalent cations such as Mg++ driven by an electric field through channels with a minimum dimension of ∼30 μm. The technique measures both the velocity components parallel to the wall and the steady-state distribution of these near-wall tracers. In these experiments, the tracers are convected parallel to the wall by both the EOF and directly by the applied electric field via electrophoresis because the surfaces of the particles also become negatively charged when suspended in the electrolyte solution. The electrophoretic contribution to the measured particle velocity was determined by measuring the particle zeta-potential with light scattering, and subtracted from the particle velocity to determine the actual EOF velocity.