University of Pittsburgh Distinguished Professor and McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Anna Balazs, PhD (pictured), collaborated with Harvard University senior author Joanna Aizenberg, PhD, the Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Materials Science and Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), on research published in Nature. Mastering control over the dynamic interplay among optical, chemical, and mechanical behavior in single-material, liquid crystalline elastomers, results in microposts that combine bending, twisting, and turning into complex dances. The advancement could contribute toward further development of soft robotics and other devices.

When humans twist and turn it is the result of complex internal functions: the body’s nervous system signals our intentions; the musculoskeletal system supports the motion; and the digestive system generates the energy to power the move. The body seamlessly integrates these activities without our even being aware that coordinated, dynamic processes are taking place. Reproducing similar, integrated functioning in a single synthetic material has proven difficult—few one-component materials naturally encompass the spatial and temporal coordination needed to mimic the spontaneity and dexterity of biological behavior.

Inspired by experiments performed in the Aizenberg Lab, Dr. Balazs and James Waters, PhD, developed the theoretical and computational models to design liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs) that imitate the seamless coupling of dynamic processes observed in living systems.

“Our movements occur spontaneously because the human body contains several interconnected structures, and the performance of each structure is highly coordinated in space and time, allowing one event to instigate the behavior in another part of the body,” explained Dr. Balazs, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and the John A. Swanson Chair of Engineering. “For example, the firing of neurons in the spine triggers a signal that causes a particular muscle to contract; the muscle expands when the neurons have stopped firing, allowing the body to return to its relaxed shape. If we could replicate this level of interlocking, multi-functionality in a synthetic material, we could ultimately devise effective self-regulating, autonomously operating devices.”

The LCE material used in this collaborative Harvard-Pitt study was composed of long polymer chains with rod-like groups (mesogens) attached via side branches; photo-responsive crosslinkers were used to make the LCE responsive to UV light. The material was molded into micron-scale posts anchored to an underlying surface. The Harvard team then demonstrated an extremely diverse set of complex motions that the microstructures can display when exposed to light. “The coupling among microscopic units—the polymers, side chains, meogens and crosslinkers—within this material could remind you of the interlocking of different components within a human body” said Dr. Balazs, “suggesting that with the right trigger, the LCE might display rich spatiotemporal behavior.”

To devise the most effective triggers, Dr. Waters formulated a model that describes the simultaneous optical, chemical, and mechanical phenomena occurring over the range of length and time scales that characterize the LCE. The simulations also provided an effective means of uncovering and visualizing the complex interactions within this responsive opto-chemo-mechanical system.

“Our model can accurately predict the spatial and temporal evolution of the posts and reveal how different behaviors can be triggered by varying the materials’ properties and features of the imposed light,” Dr. Waters said, further noting, “The model serves as a particularly useful predictive tool when the complexity of the system is increased by, for example, introducing multiple interacting posts, which can be arranged in an essentially infinite number of ways.”

According to Dr. Balazs, these combined modeling and experimental studies pave the way for creating the next generation of light-responsive, soft machines or robots that begin to exhibit life-like autonomy. “Light is a particularly useful stimulus for activating these materials since the light source can be easily moved to instigate motion in different parts of the post or collection of posts,” she said.

In future studies, Drs. Waters and Balazs will investigate how arrays of posts and posts with different geometries behave under the influence of multiple or more localized beams of light. Preliminary results indicate that in the presence of multiple light beams, the LCE posts can mimic the movement and flexibility of fingers, suggesting new routes for designing soft robotic hands that can be manipulated with light.

“The vast design space for individual and collective motions is potentially transformative for soft robotics, micro-walkers, sensors, and robust information encryption systems,” said Dr. Aizenberg.

Read more…

University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering News Release

Science Daily

Abstract (Self-regulated non-reciprocal motions in single-material microstructures. Shucong Li, Michael M. Lerch, James T. Waters, Bolei Deng, Reese S. Martens, Yuxing Yao, Do Yoon Kim, Katia Bertoldi, Alison Grinthal, Anna C. Balazs & Joanna Aizenberg. Nature, 605, pages76–83, May 4, 2022.)

Abstract (Manna, R.K., Laskar, A., Shklyaev, O.E., Balazs, A.C. Harnessing the power of chemically active sheets in solution. Nature Reviews Physics 4, 125–137 (2022).)