Surface tension-driven flow in soft porous materials — An investigation of the mechanism of capillary flow in microchannels of hydrogels
Spontaneous spreading of liquids in porous materials is of great industrial relevance and occurs in, for example, diapers, fabrics, paper or paint. Often, it is necessary to manipulate the spreading rate of liquids to result in the desired mass transport, for example to soak up large liquid volumes, as in a diaper. To do this, it is necessary to know the precise mechanism of surface tension driven flow. However, the process is complex and so are the porous materials in terms of both chemical composition and geometry. The mathematical and physical description of the process is often limited to specific cases – for example, the well-known Lucas-Washburn equation describes the speed of a meniscus in capillaries with circular cross-section in a hard material without interconnections. The objective of this thesis is to deepen the understanding of the mechanism with which a liquid spreads in a soft porous material only driven by surface tension. To this end, the liquid dynamics of water and water-based liquids were investigated in various model systems which are similar to porous 3D materials. In an alginate gel, capillaries with circular cross-sections were produced and the spreading rate of water was determined and compared to existing models. Using a method, which involves 3D printing, it was possible to fabricate open channels with rectangular cross-sections in the same alginate gel. The liquid spreading in these channels in geometries of branched channel systems was investigated. The results revealed that the spreading rate in capillaries of circular cross-sections in soft materials was much slower than that anticipated in existing models, which describe hard materials. In open channels of rectangular cross-sections, the presence of side channels slowed down the meniscus in the main channel; the meniscus stopped when it encountered junctions. The stop duration was longer when the side channels were longer, when they were wider, and when their tilting angle was low with respect to the main channel. An analysis of the volume flow indicated that those geometries that had long side channels but are few in number, resulted in faster volume flow. In a porous 3D material, this suggests that the interconnectivity could decrease the volume flow rate. Finally, a calcium alginate gel with straight-aligned pores was produced and characterised as an example of optimal liquid transport. The outcome of this thesis can be used to adjust the geometrical design of porous materials to result in desired liquid transport properties. The stiffness of the material may influence the liquid transport. The thesis also contributes to the discussion on how the liquid takes selective pathways in porous materials.
wetting on soft materials