In microfluidics, there are “drop on demand” instruments to precisely deposit extremely small volumes (pico- or nano-liters) of fluid. These devices are prohibitively expensive, so [Kyle] set out to design a system using hobbyist-level parts for under $1000. As part of this, he has a fascinating use case for a specialized camera: capturing the formation and shape of a micro-drop as it is made.
There are so many different parts to this effort that it’s all worth a read, but the two big design elements come down to:
- Making the microdrop using a piezo element
- Ensuring the drop is made correctly, and visually troubleshooting
It’s one thing to make an inkjet element in a printer work, but it’s quite another to make a piezoelectric element dispense arbitrary liquids in a controlled, repeatable, and predictable way. Because piezoelectric elements force liquid out with a mechanical motion, different liquids require different drive signals and that kind of experimentation requires a way to see what is going on, hence the need for a drop observation camera.
[Kyle] ended up taking the lens assembly from a cheap USB microscope and mating it to his Korukesu C1 USB Camera with a 3D printed assembly. Another 3D printed enclosure doubles as a lightbox, holding the piezo tube in the center with the LED strobe and camera on opposite sides. The whole assembly had a few false starts, but in the end [Kyle] seems pretty happy with his results. The device is briefly described at a high level here. There are some rough edges, but it’s a working system.
Inkjet technology has been around for a long time (you can see a thirty-plus year old inkjet printer in action here) but it’s worth mentioning that not all inkjet heads are alike. Most inkjet printer heads operate thermally, which means a flash of heat vaporizes some ink to expel a micro-drop. These heads aren’t very suitable for microfluidics because not only do they rely on vaporizing the liquid, but they also don’t work well with anything other than the ink they’re designed for. Piezoelectric print heads are less common, but are more suited to the kind of work [Kyle] is doing.