Futuristic liquid robots made possible by giant leap in magnetic research

20 Juillet, 2019, 03:22 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • Scientists create method to print magnetic liquid droplets

This could include artificial cells that can deliver targeted cancer therapies, or flexible liquid robots that can change their shape to adapt to their surroundings.

A team led by material scientist Professor Thomas Russell, from the University of MA, spent seven years developing a method to magnetise metallic fluids - making it possible to control their shape with magnets. Russell is the head of a program called Adaptive Interfacial Assemblies Towards Structuring Liquids. The new ferromagnetic liquid droplets "represent a milestone for the further development of magnetic materials", Russell says. "No one has ever observed this before", explained Russell.

"This opens the door", Russell said, "to a new area of science in magnetic soft matter".

Also contributing to the study were researchers from UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, the WPI-Advanced Institute for Materials Research (WPI-AIMR) at Tohoku University, and Beijing University of Chemical Technology.

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Using a previously developed 3D printing technique, involving a Qidi X-one 3D printer, Russel and Liu 3D printed 1 millimeter droplets from a ferrofluid solution, containing iron-oxide nanoparticles only 20 nanometers in length. On top of that, the droplets may be tuned so their magnetism could be switched on and off at will. However, when the coil was removed, the droplets kept their magnetism permanently, while gravitating towards each other in flawless unison, in what the scientists described as an "elegant swirl" or "little dancing droplets".

Magnets, as we all know them, are always solid. When ferrofluid is removed from the presence of a magnetic field, the nanoparticles fall into disarray, and the fluid just becomes sort of blobby. GIF via Xubo Liu/Berkeley Lab.

Through magnetometry measurements, the scientists found that when they placed a magnetic field by a droplet, all of the nanoparticles' north-south poles, from the 70 billion iron-oxide nanoparticles floating around in the droplet to the 1 billion nanoparticles on the droplet's surface, responded in unison, just like a solid magnet. Significantly, this was enabled by the "interfacial jamming' of the nanoparticles at the droplet's surface, which are packed tightly together with only nanometers between each of the nanoparticles, creating the solid surface". But when the magnetic field is taken away, there's no room for the surface particles to drift because they're jammed so closely together, and thus stay that way. The researchers also discovered that divided droplets retained their magnetic properties.

Among the magnetic droplets' many awesome qualities, what stands out even more, Russell noted, is that they change shape to adapt to their surroundings. Using a modified 3D printer, a team of scientists at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have done just that. "What began as a curious observation ended up opening a new area of science", added Liu. "It's something all young researchers dream of, and I was lucky to have the chance to work with a great group of scientists supported by Berkeley Lab's world-class user facilities to make it a reality", mentioned Xubo Liu. However, unlike normal ferrofluids, this magnetism remained even after the coil was eliminated.

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