Spatio-temporal dynamics of dilute red blood cell suspensions in low-inertia microchannel flow

Zhou, Q. and Fidalgo, J. and Calvi, L. and Bernabeu, M. O. and Hoskins, P. R. and Oliveira, M. S. N. and Krüger, T. (2020) Spatio-temporal dynamics of dilute red blood cell suspensions in low-inertia microchannel flow. Biophysical Journal, 118 (10). pp. 2561-2573. ISSN 0006-3495 (

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Microfluidic technologies are commonly used for the manipulation of red blood cell (RBC) suspensions and analyses of flow-mediated biomechanics. To enhance the performance of microfluidic devices, understanding the dynamics of the suspensions processed within is crucial. We report novel, to our knowledge, aspects of the spatiotemporal dynamics of RBC suspensions flowing through a typical microchannel at low Reynolds number. Through experiments with dilute RBC suspensions, we find an off-center two-peak (OCTP) profile of cells contrary to the centralized distribution commonly reported for low-inertia flows. This is reminiscent of the well-known “tubular pinch effect,” which arises from inertial effects. However, given the conditions of negligible inertia in our experiments, an alternative explanation is needed for this OCTP profile. Our massively parallel simulations of RBC flow in real-size microfluidic dimensions using the immersed-boundary-lattice-Boltzmann method confirm the experimental findings and elucidate the underlying mechanism for the counterintuitive RBC pattern. By analyzing the RBC migration and cell-free layer development within a high-aspect-ratio channel, we show that such a distribution is co-determined by the spatial decay of hydrodynamic lift and the global deficiency of cell dispersion in dilute suspensions. We find a cell-free layer development length greater than 46 and 28 hydraulic diameters in the experiment and simulation, respectively, exceeding typical lengths of microfluidic designs. Our work highlights the key role of transient cell distribution in dilute suspensions, which may negatively affect the reliability of experimental results if not taken into account.