Antifouling Properties of Pluronic and Tetronic Surfactants in Digital Microfluidics

ACS Appl Mater Interfaces. 2023 Feb 8;15(5):6326-6337. doi: 10.1021/acsami.2c17317. Epub 2023 Jan 25.


Fouling at liquid-solid interfaces is a pernicious problem for a wide range of applications, including those that are implemented by digital microfluidics (DMF). There are several strategies that have been used to combat surface fouling in DMF, the most common being inclusion of amphiphilic surfactant additives in the droplets to be manipulated. Initial studies relied on Pluronic additives, and more recently, Tetronic additives have been used, which has allowed manipulation of complex samples like serum and whole blood. Here, we report our evaluation of 19 different Pluronic and Tetronic additives, with attempts to determine (1) the difference in antifouling performance between the two families, (2) the structural similarities that predict exceptional antifouling performance, and (3) the mechanism of the antifouling behavior. Our analysis shows that both Pluronic and Tetronic additives with modest molar mass, poly(propylene oxide) (PPO) ≥50 units, poly(ethylene oxide) (PEO) mass percentage ≤50%, and hydrophilic-lipophilic balance (HLB) ca. 13-15 allow for exceptional antifouling performance in DMF. The most promising candidates, P104, P105, and T904, were able to support continuous movement of droplets of serum for more than 2 h, a result (for devices operating in air) previously thought to be out of reach for this technique. Additional results generated using device longevity assays, intrinsic fluorescence measurements, dynamic light scattering, asymmetric flow field flow fractionation, supercritical angle fluorescence microscopy, atomic force microscopy, and quartz crystal microbalance measurements suggest that the best-performing surfactants are more likely to operate by forming a protective layer at the liquid-solid interface than by complexation with proteins. We propose that these results and their implications are an important step forward for the growing community of users of this technique, which may provide guidance in selecting surfactants for manipulating biological matrices for a wide range of applications.

Keywords: digital microfluidics; electrowetting; fouling; nonspecific adsorption; pluronics; tetronics.

MeSH terms

  • Biofouling* / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Microfluidics
  • Poloxamer* / chemistry
  • Polyethylene Glycols / chemistry
  • Surface-Active Agents


  • Poloxamer
  • Surface-Active Agents
  • Polyethylene Glycols