Systems of mechanized and reactive droplets powered by multi-responsive surfactants.

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Nature, ISSN: 1476-4687, Vol: 553, Issue: 7688, Page: 313-318

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Yang, Zhijie; Wei, Jingjing; Sobolev, Yaroslav I.; Grzybowski, Bartosz A.
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article description
Although 'active' surfactants, which are responsive to individual external stimuli such as temperature, electric or magnetic fields, light, redox processes or chemical agents, are well known, it would be interesting to combine several of these properties within one surfactant species. Such multi-responsive surfactants could provide ways of manipulating individual droplets and possibly assembling them into larger systems of dynamic reactors. Here we describe surfactants based on functionalized nanoparticle dimers that combine all of these and several other characteristics. These surfactants and therefore the droplets that they cover are simultaneously addressable by magnetic, optical and electric fields. As a result, the surfactant-covered droplets can be assembled into various hierarchical structures, including dynamic ones, in which light powers the rapid rotation of the droplets. Such rotating droplets can transfer mechanical torques to their non-nearest neighbours, thus acting like systems of mechanical gears. Furthermore, droplets of different types can be merged by applying electric fields and, owing to interfacial jamming, can form complex, non-spherical, 'patchy' structures with different surface regions covered with different surfactants. In systems of droplets that carry different chemicals, combinations of multiple stimuli can be used to control the orientations of the droplets, inter-droplet transport, mixing of contents and, ultimately, sequences of chemical reactions. Overall, the multi-responsive active surfactants that we describe provide an unprecedented level of flexibility with which liquid droplets can be manipulated, assembled and reacted.