Optical bunching of particles in a liquid flow
High-speed liquid micro-jets are used to rapidly and repeatedly deliver protein microcrystals to focused and pulsed X-ray beams in the method of serial femtosecond crystallography. However, the current continuous flow of crystals is mismatched to the arrival of X-ray pulses, wasting vast amounts of an often rare and precious sample. Here, we introduce a method to address this problem by periodically trapping and releasing crystals in the liquid flow, creating locally concentrated crystal bunches, using an optical trap integrated in the microfluidic supply line. We experimentally demonstrate a 30-fold increase of particle concentration into 10 Hz bunches of 6.4 µm diameter polystyrene particles. Furthermore, using particle trajectory simulations, a comprehensive description of the optical bunching process and parameter space is presented. Adding this compact optofluidics device to existing injection systems would thereby dramatically reduce sample consumption and extend the application of serial crystallography to a greater range of protein crystal systems that cannot be produced in high abundance. Our approach is suitable for other microfluidic systems that require synchronous measurements of flowing objects.