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Self-Propelled Water Drops on Bare Glass Substrates in Air: Fast, Controllable, and Easy Transport Powered by Surfactants

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posted on 03.03.2020 by Pauline E. Galy, Sergii Rudiuk, Mathieu Morel, Damien Baigl
Self-propelled drops are capable of motion without external intervention. As such, they constitute attractive entities for fundamental investigations in active soft matter, hydrodynamics, and surface sciences, as well as promising systems for autonomous microfluidic operations. In contrast with most of the examples relying on organic drops or specifically treated substrates, here we describe the first system of nonreactive water drops in air that can propel themselves on a commercially available ordinary glass substrate that was used as received. This is achieved by exploiting the dynamic adsorption behavior of common n-alkyltrimethylammonium bromide (CnTAB) surfactants added to the drop. We precisely analyze the drop motion for a broad series of surfactants carrying n = 6 to 18 carbon atoms in their tail and establish how the motion characteristics (speed, probability of motion) are tuned by both the hydrophobicity and the concentration of the surfactant. We show that motion occurs regardless of the n value but only in a specific concentration range with a maximum speed at around one tenth of the critical micelle concentration (CMC/10) for most of the tested surfactants. Surfactants of intermediate hydrophobicity are shown to be the best candidates to power drops that can move at a high speed (1–10 cm s–1), the optimal performance being reached with [C12TAB] = 800 μM. We propose a mechanism where the motion originates from the anisotropic wettability of the substrate created by the electrostatic adsorption of surfactants beneath the moving drop. Simply drawing lines with a marker pen allows us to create guiding paths for drop motion and to achieve operations such as complex trajectory control, programmed drop fusion, drop refilling, as well as drop moving vertically against gravity. This work revisits the role of surfactants in dynamic wetting and self-propelled motion as well as brings an original strategy to build the future of microfluidics with lower-cost, simpler, and more autonomous portable devices that could be made available to everyone and everywhere.

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