A microscale molecular weight analysis method for characterizing polymers solutions of unknown concentrations
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Molecular weight and concentration are two most important characteristics of polymers synthesized through chemical or microbial processes. However, current methods for characterizing polymer molecular weight such as Multi-Angle Laser Light Scattering (MALLS) or Gel Permeation Chromatography (GPC) require precise information on concentration as well as extensive sample preparation. Additionally, these current methods are also generally expensive, low throughput, and require large sample titers. These limitations prevent dynamic time-point studies of changes in molecular weight, which would be very useful for monitoring synthesis progress in microbes or in chemical synthesis. In this thesis, we designed, fabricated, and tested a rapid, low cost, high throughput, modular microfluidic system for determining polymer molecular weight in samples of unknown concentrations. To assess the accuracy of this system, we first constructed theoretical predictions for its accuracy, and then compared these to the experimental results from our microfluidic system. The system evaluated molecular weight by correlating the behavior of polymers in various solvent conditions to their molecular weights. The system consists of two modules for measuring fluid viscosity, and for controlling solvent conditions. Results of this study will show that this system is able to evaluate the differences in polymer viscosity for varying molecular weights and solvent conditions. For the solvent control module, we show that salt concentrations in small titers of polymer solutions can be rapidly added or subtracted and evaluated compared with current methods. Next, we will show the efficacy of the viscosity module at rapidly and accurately assessing fluid viscosity over a wide range of molecular weights. Finally, we will show the effects of solvent changes on molecular weight viscosity, and thus the efficacy of the system in determining molecular weight from fluid viscosity. This system will be applied to the evaluation of both the biologically produced polymer Hyaluronic Acid (HA) as well as the synthetically produced polymer Poly-ethylene Oxide (PEO).