Journal of Biomechanics
Convective respiratory flows in the pulmonary acinus and their influence on the fate of inhaled particles are typically studied using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) or scaled-up experimental models. However, experiments that replicate several generations of the acinar tree while featuring cyclic wall motion have not yet been realized. Moreover, current experiments generally capture only flow dynamics, without inhaled particle dynamics, due to difficulties in simultaneously matching flow and particle dynamics. In an effort to overcome these limitations, we introduce a novel microfluidic device mimicking acinar flow characteristics directly at the alveolar scale. The model features an anatomically-inspired geometry that expands and contracts periodically with five dichotomously branching airway generations lined with alveolar-like cavities. We use micro-particle image velocimetry with a glycerol solution as the carrying fluid to quantitatively characterize detailed flow patterns within the device and reveal experimentally for the first time a gradual transition of alveolar flow patterns along the acinar tree from recirculating to radial streamlines, in support of hypothesized predictions from past CFD simulations. The current measurements show that our microfluidic system captures the underlying characteristics of the acinar flow environment, including Reynolds and Womersley numbers as well as cyclic wall displacements and alveolar flow patterns at a realistic length scale. With the use of air as the carrying fluid, our miniaturized platform is anticipated to capture both particle and flow dynamics and serve in the near future as a promising in vitro tool for investigating the mechanisms of particle deposition deep in the lung.