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Magnetic fields cause microcubes to respond like mini robots

Strategy for remotely controlling the motions of microscopic particles could hasten development of artificial muscle and biomimetic devices

by Mitch Jacoby
August 7, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 32

A two-panel image with a chain of micrometer-sized cubes in a linear configuration (left), which then snap shut forming, two compartments when a magnetic field is applied (right).
Credit: Sci. Adv.
Switching a magnetic field on and off causes magnetic microcubes to reorient controllably.

Hours of practice enable marching band members to smoothly step through one orderly formation after another. Some colloidal particles can also do that fancy footwork, but they don’t need to practice. A team of researchers including Koohee Han and Orlin D. Velev of North Carolina State University made polymer cubes with 10-µm-long edges and selectively coated one face of each cube with a 100-nm-thick film of cobalt, which can be magnetized. Then they formed aqueous suspensions of the microcubes and showed that by controlling the way magnetic fields were applied to the suspensions, including switching the fields on and off and superimposing fields from multiple electromagnets, the cubes could be made to spontaneously and reversibly assemble in a variety of shapes and patterns (Sci. Adv. 2017, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701108). In some cases, the cubes reversibly switched between a linear chain and ringlike configuration. In others, the cubes underwent complex folding, unfolding, and rotational motions. In yet another display of control, the team used a pattern of cubes to capture and transport a live cell and then release it. The researchers propose that this strategy may one day be used to develop microbots, artificial muscles, and other biomimetic devices.

By coating one face of these polymer cubes (10 µm long) with a magnetic metal, researchers can apply magnetic fields to a colloidal suspension of the microcubes and cause them to track, capture, and release a live cell.
Credit: Koohee Han and Wyatt Shields


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