Nav: Home

Microscopic 'sunflowers' for better solar panels

December 04, 2018

The pads of geckos' notoriously sticky feet are covered with setae - microscopic, hairlike structures whose chemical and physical composition and high flexibility allow the lizard to grip walls and ceilings with ease. Scientists have tried to replicate such dynamic microstructures in the lab with a variety of materials, including liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs), which are rubbery networks with attached liquid crystalline groups that dictate the directions in which the LCEs can move and stretch. So far, synthetic LCEs have mostly been able to deform in only one or two dimensions, limiting the structures' ability to move throughout space and take on different shapes.

Now, a group of scientists from Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) has harnessed magnetic fields to control the molecular structure of LCEs and create microscopic three-dimensional polymer shapes that can be programmed to move in any direction in response to multiple types of stimuli. The work, reported in PNAS, could lead to the creation of a number of useful devices, including solar panels that turn to follow the sun for improved energy capture.

"What's critical about this project is that we are able to control the molecular structure by aligning liquid crystals in an arbitrary direction in 3D space, allowing us to program nearly any shape into the geometry of the material itself," said first author Yuxing Yao, who is a graduate student in the lab of Wyss Founding Core Faculty Member Joanna Aizenberg, Ph.D.

The microstructures created by Yao and Aizenberg's team are made of LCEs cast into arbitrary shapes that can deform in response to heat, light, and humidity, and whose specific reconfiguration is controlled by their own chemical and material properties.The researchers found that by exposing the LCE precursors to a magnetic field while they were being synthesized, all the liquid crystalline elements inside the LCEs lined up along the magnetic field and retained this molecular alignment after the polymer solidified. By varying the direction of the magnetic field during this process, the scientists could dictate how the resulting LCE shapes would deform when heated to a temperature that disrupted the orientation of their liquid crystalline structures. When returned to ambient temperature, the deformed structures resumed their initial, internally oriented shape.

Such programmed shape changes could be used to create encrypted messages that are only revealed when heated to a specific temperature, actuators for tiny soft robots, or adhesive materials whose stickiness can be switched on and off. The system can also cause shapes to autonomously bend in directions that would usually require the input of some energy to achieve. For example, an LCE plate was shown to not only undergo "traditional" out-of-plane bending, but also in-plane bending or twisting, elongation, and contraction. Additionally, unique motions could be achieved by exposing different regions of an LCE structure to multiple magnetic fields during polymerization, which then deformed in different directions when heated.

The team was also able to program their LCE shapes to reconfigure themselves in response to light by incorporating light-sensitive cross-linking molecules into the structure during polymerization. Then, when the structure was illuminated from a certain direction, the side facing the light contracted, causing the entire shape to bend toward the light. This type of self-regulated motion allows LCEs to deform in response to their environment and continuously reorient themselves to autonomously follow the light.

Additionally, LCEs can be created with both heat- and light-responsive properties, such that a single-material structure is now capable of multiple forms of movement and response mechanisms.

One exciting application of these multiresponsive LCEs is the creation of solar panels covered with microstructures that turn to follow the sun as it moves across the sky like a sunflower, thus resulting in more efficient light capture. The technology could also form the basis of autonomous source-following radios, multilevel encryption, sensors, and smart buildings.

"Our lab currently has several ongoing projects in which we're working on controlling the chemistry of these LCEs to enable unique, previously unseen deformation behaviors, as we believe these dynamic bioinspired structures have the potential to find use in a number of fields," said Aizenberg, who is also the Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Material Science at SEAS.

"Asking fundamental questions about how Nature works and whether it is possible to replicate biological structures and processes in the lab is at the core of the Wyss Institute's values, and can often lead to innovations that not only match Nature's abilities, but improve on them to create new materials and devices that would not exist otherwise," said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children's Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS.
-end-
Additional authors of the paper include James Waters, Ph.D. and Anna Balazs, Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh; Anna Schneidman, Ph.D., Jiaxi Cui, Ph.D., Xioguang Wang, Ph.D., and Nikolaj Mandzberg from Harvard SEAS, and Shucong Li from Harvard's Chemistry department.

This research was supported by the Department of Energy and DARPA.

Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard

Related Magnetic Field Articles:

Origins of Earth's magnetic field remain a mystery
The existence of a magnetic field beyond 3.5 billion years ago is still up for debate.
New research provides evidence of strong early magnetic field around Earth
New research from the University of Rochester provides evidence that the magnetic field that first formed around Earth was even stronger than scientists previously believed.
Massive photons in an artificial magnetic field
An international research collaboration from Poland, the UK and Russia has created a two-dimensional system -- a thin optical cavity filled with liquid crystal -- in which they trapped photons.
Adhesive which debonds in magnetic field could reduce landfill waste
Researchers at the University of Sussex have developed a glue which can unstick when placed in a magnetic field, meaning products otherwise destined for landfill, could now be dismantled and recycled at the end of their life.
Earth's last magnetic field reversal took far longer than once thought
Every several hundred thousand years or so, Earth's magnetic field dramatically shifts and reverses its polarity.
A new rare metals alloy can change shape in the magnetic field
Scientists developed multifunctional metal alloys that emit and absorb heat at the same time and change their size and volume under the influence of a magnetic field.
Physicists studied the influence of magnetic field on thin film structures
A team of scientists from Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University together with their colleagues from Russia, Japan, and Australia studied the influence of inhomogeneity of magnetic field applied during the fabrication process of thin-film structures made from nickel-iron and iridium-manganese alloys, on their properties.
'Magnetic topological insulator' makes its own magnetic field
A team of U.S. and Korean physicists has found the first evidence of a two-dimensional material that can become a magnetic topological insulator even when it is not placed in a magnetic field.
Scientists develop a new way to remotely measure Earth's magnetic field
By zapping a layer of meteor residue in the atmosphere with ground-based lasers, scientists in the US, Canada and Europe get a new view of Earth's magnetic field.
Magnetic field milestone
Physicists from the Institute for Solid State Physics at the University of Tokyo have generated the strongest controllable magnetic field ever produced.
More Magnetic Field News and Magnetic Field Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.