In my lab, I focus on micro- and milli-fluidics, or the flow of liquids through channels about the size of human blood vessels.

To picture Erin Jablonski's research, shake up a bottle of vinaigrette. The oil and vinegar intermingle, but don't really mix. As you enjoy your salad, the oil in the bottle slowly rises above the vinegar, leaving two separate phases to be shaken again at dinner tomorrow.

The shaken salad dressing is an emulsion, a combination of two substances that won't mix. Droplets of the oil are dispersed throughout the vinegar when the bottle is shaken, but the two substances do not form a homogenous solution. Emulsions are often used to facilitate chemical reactions, by bringing the molecules of the two phases close to each other. Once the reaction has taken place, the two phases are separated so that the reaction product can be recovered.

Separating emulsions typically takes either time (letting the salad dressing sit) or energy (spinning them in a centrifuge), and both processes are expensive at an industrial scale. That's where Jablonski comes in. She and her students have developed a fast and inexpensive process for separating emulsions and have filed a provisional patent on the technique.

"In my lab, I focus on micro- and milli-fluidics, or the flow of liquids through channels about the size of human blood vessels," says Jablonski. Applying this study to emulsions, she and her student researchers have developed a device in which emulsions are pumped through a small channel. One wall of the channel is made up of a hydrogel, a water-loving material. While water flows through and against the hydrogel, oil is repelled and moves away. Thus, as the emulsion moves through the channel, the oil and water phases naturally separate and exit the channel as distinct streams.

In other research, Jablonski and her students are looking at how drugs move into the bloodstream from drug-eluting materials, such as the stents used to prevent blockage of coronary arteries. "We've had some very interesting results that demonstrate that some of the classic ways to evaluate drug-eluting devices may not be providing the whole picture," she says. "Specifically, we've used imaging and effluent analysis techniques to show that the amount of drug released is not always what you'd expect based on a simple model."

To attract young students to the field that she has found so rewarding, Jablonski spends a week each summer leading Engineering Camp, giving teenagers a hands-on opportunity to explore what it means to be an engineer. Drawing a range of campers, from those who aren't quite sure what an engineer is to those already deciding which branch of engineering to study, the experience is designed to pique their curiosity, imaginations and motivation to pursue the field. In 2011, the fourth year for the camp, 90 campers and 20 faculty members participated.

Posted Sept. 20, 2011

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