Decoding Liquids Before Your Very Eyes

Seeing really is believing. How often can we tell what a liquid is by just looking at it? Not too often. Sure, you might be able to tell when you definitely smell something sulfurous, or have a slippery base and I hope you can pick out milk. But we’re not always that lucky, especially if you’re dealing with something you really shouldn’t be touching or directly smelling. There are a ton of tests we can run to pinpoint what it is and you often need a pro to decipher the results. Ideally you could just read it with your eyes. With a batch of research from Harvard University, we’re one step closer.

The paper entitled, “Encoding Complex Wettability Patterns in Chemically Functionalized 3D Photonic Crystals” was featured in the August issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The lead authors Ian B. Burgess and Joanna Aizenberg, of the Wyss Institute, propose a process to functionalize crystals so that they can differentiate between different fluids.


First, these aren’t just any of crystals. These are 3D porous photonic Inverse Opal Films (IOF). They were carefully created to maintain a specific structure. The ability to discern between different fluids is possible due to selective application and erasure of different chemicals. First, a functional group is applied to the surface of the IOF. A slab of PDMS (a silicon-based polymer) is sealed to an area of the IOF. O2 plasma is applied and erases the functional group except the area covered by the PDMS. This can then be repated with a second functional group, and so on and so on. There can even be overlapping areas covered to give you exactly what you need.


But what’s the point of functionalizing the surface? Well the functionalization affects the wettability of the IOF. Given the surface’s wettability and the surface tension of a liquid, the liquid won’t be able to penetrate the channels. There can be a clear change of color in the infiltrated regions. The authors refer to their system as Watermark-Ink (W-Ink) and suggest that it could be used as security measures. But I think I’d rather see it used in microfluidics. While you may toy with the notion that you could selectively choose which fluids flow through certain channels and partake in reactions, I think it is most useful as an indicator. Many microfluidic devices are intended to be used as point-of-care (POC) diagnostics. A sample is analyzed for a certain component that would indicate something about the patient's health. But at the end of the test, you have to be able to tell if the reactions were positive or negative. I think that the test could be designed to produce two fluids with different surface tensions, depending on the outcome. Then, one of two shapes would appear. It would require no confocal microscope or camera, and certainly wouldn’t need translation.


Burgess, I., Mishchenko, L., Hatton, B., Kolle, M., Lončar, M., & Aizenberg, J. (2011). Encoding Complex Wettability Patterns in Chemically Functionalized 3D Photonic Crystals Journal of the American Chemical Society, 133 (32), 12430-12432 DOI: 10.1021/ja2053013