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Mimicking cell behavior with functionalized surfactants

By Paul Grad |

Active surfactants are those that are responsive to an external stimulus, such as temperature, light, electric or magnetic fields or chemical agents. Scientists from the Institute for Basic Science (Daejeon, South Korea; www.ibs.re.kr) have developed surfactants based on functionalized nanoparticle dimers that are responsive to magnetic, optical and electric fields simultaneously. These surfactants can be used to coat liquid droplets, which can then be manipulated by external stimuli and assembled into various hierarchical structures.

For example, the droplets can be manipulated with light absorbed by the nanoparticles. A laser causes the droplets to move toward the beam and form closely packed structures within seconds. The process is reversible and repeatable. Turning the laser on and off produces alternating assembly and scattering. When the light is guided to the edge of a droplet, it begins to rotate. If the droplet is located in a packed group, it can transfer mechanical torque to other droplets, thus acting like a system of mechanical gears. The speed and direction of rotation can be adjusted by the laser’s angle and intensity.

While a magnetic and optical field manipulates the position and movement of a droplet, an electric field causes it to assume several shapes. Applying a strong electric pulse where two or more droplets touch causes the surfactant to swirl up and down simultaneously, creating permanent channels between the droplets or even merging them. Opening a channel between the droplets allows mixing their liquid contents.

Manipulating chemical reactions allows mimicking the behavior of cells, resulting in chemical plants on the nanoscale controlled by magnets and light. According to the scientists, their work opens up several more possibilities, such as light-guided 3-D printing, or coating living cells with nanosurfactants.

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