Living organisms make extensive use of micro- and nanometre-sized pores as gatekeepers for controlling the movement of fluids, vapours and solids between complex environments. The ability of such pores to coordinate multiphase transport, in a highly selective and subtly triggered fashion and without clogging, has inspired interest in synthetic gated pores for applications ranging from fluid processing to 3D printing and lab-on-chip systems. But although specific gating and transport behaviours have been realized by precisely tailoring pore surface chemistries and pore geometries, a single system capable of controlling complex, selective multiphase transport has remained a distant prospect, and fouling is nearly inevitable. Here we introduce a gating mechanism that uses a capillary-stabilized liquid as a reversible, reconfigurable gate that fills and seals pores in the closed state, and creates a non-fouling, liquid-lined pore in the open state. Theoretical modelling and experiments demonstrate that for each transport substance, the gating threshold—the pressure needed to open the pores—can be rationally tuned over a wide pressure range. This enables us to realize in one system differential response profiles for a variety of liquids and gases, even letting liquids flow through the pore while preventing gas from escaping. These capabilities allow us to dynamically modulate gas–liquid sorting in a microfluidic flow and to separate a three-phase air–water–oil mixture, with the liquid lining ensuring sustained antifouling behaviour. Because the liquid gating strategy enables efficient long-term operation and can be applied to a variety of pore structures and membrane materials, and to micro- as well as macroscale fluid systems, we expect it to prove useful in a wide range of applications.
This work was supported in part by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), US Department of Energy, under award number DE-AR0000326. We thank M. Aizenberg, R. T. Blough and X. Y. Chen for discussions; A. B. Tesler for assistance with the scanning electron microscopy; and T. S. Wong, B. D. Hatton and R. A. Belisle for assistance with antifouling experiments.