Polymeric microfluidic systems are well suited for miniaturized devices with complex functionality, and rapid prototyping methods for 3D microfluidic structures are increasingly used. Mixing at the microscale and performing chemical reactions at the microscale are important applications of such systems and we therefore explored feasibility, mixing characteristics and the ability to control a chemical reaction in helical 3D channels produced by the emerging thread template method. Mixing at the microscale is challenging because channel size reduction for improving solute diffusion comes at the price of a reduced Reynolds number that induces a strictly laminar flow regime and abolishes turbulence that would be desired for improved mixing. Microfluidic 3D helix mixers were rapidly prototyped in polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) using low-surface energy polymeric threads, twisted to form 2-channel and 3-channel helices. Structure and flow characteristics were assessed experimentally by microscopy, hydraulic measurements and chromogenic reaction, and were modeled by computational fluid dynamics. We found that helical 3D microfluidic systems produced by thread templating allow rapid prototyping, can be used for mixing and for controlled chemical reaction with two or three reaction partners at the microscale. Compared to the conventional T-shaped microfluidic system used as a control device, enhanced mixing and faster chemical reaction was found to occur due to the combination of diffusive mixing in small channels and flow folding due to the 3D helix shape. Thus, microfluidic 3D helix mixers can be rapidly prototyped using the thread template method and are an attractive and competitive method for fluid mixing and chemical reactions at the microscale.
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