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Gel-Based Self-Propelling Particles Get Programmed To Dance

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posted on 03.07.2012, 00:00 by Rachita Sharma, Suk Tai Chang, Orlin D. Velev
We present a class of gel-based self-propelling particles moving by the Marangoni effect in an oscillatory mode. The particles are made of an ethanol-infused polyacrylamide hydrogel contained in plastic tubing. These gel boats floating on the water surface exhibit periodic propulsion for several hours. The release of ethanol from the hydrogel takes place beneath the liquid surface. The released ethanol rises to the air–water interface by buoyancy and generates a self-sustained cycle of surface tension gradient driven motion. The disruption of the ethanol flux to the surface by the bulk flows around the moving particle results in their pulsating motion. The pulse interval and the distance propelled in a pulse by these gel floaters were measured and approximated by simple expressions based on the rate of ethanol mass-transfer through and out of the hydrogel. This allowed us to design a multitude of particles performing periodic steps in different directions or at different angles of rotation, traveling in complex preprogrammed trajectories on the surface of the liquid. Similar gel-based self-propelling floaters can find applications as mixers and cargo carriers in lab-on-a-chip devices, and in various platforms for sensing and processing at the microscale.