Programming Deformations of 3D Microstructures; Opportunities Enabled by Magnetic Alignment of Liquid Crystalline Elastomers


Synthetic structures that undergo controlled movement are crucial building blocks for developing new technologies applicable to robotics, healthcare, and sustainable self-regulated materials. Yet, programming motion is nontrivial, and particularly at the microscale it remains a fundamental challenge. At the macroscale, movement can be controlled by conventional electric, pneumatic, or combustion-based machinery. At the nanoscale, chemistry has taken strides in enabling molecularly fueled movement. Yet in between, at the microscale, top-down fabrication becomes cumbersome and expensive, while bottom-up chemical self-assembly and amplified molecular motion does not reach the necessary sophistication. Hence, new approaches that converge top-down and bottom-up methods and enable motional complexity at the microscale are urgently needed. Synthetic anisotropic materials (e.g., liquid crystalline elastomers, LCEs) with encoded molecular anisotropy that are shaped into arbitrary geometries by top-down fabrication promise new opportunities to implement controlled actuation at the microscale. In such materials, motional complexity is directly linked to the built-in molecular anisotropy that can be “activated” by external stimuli. So far, encoding the desired patterns of molecular directionality has relied mostly on either mechanical or surface alignment techniques, which do not allow the decoupling of molecular and geometric features, severely restricting achievable material shapes and thus limiting attainable actuation patterns, unless complex multimaterial constructs are fabricated. Electromagnetic fields have recently emerged as possible alternatives to provide 3D control over local anisotropy, independent of the geometry of a given 3D object. The combination of magnetic alignment and soft lithography, in particular, provides a powerful platform for the rapid, practical, and facile production of microscale soft actuators with field-defined local anisotropy. Recent work has established the feasibility of this approach with low magnetic field strengths (in the lower mT range) and comparably simple setups used for the fabrication of the microactuators, in which magnetic fields can be engineered through arrangement of permanent magnets. This workflow gives access to microstructures with unusual spatial patterning of molecular alignment and has enabled a multitude of nontrivial deformation types that would not be possible to program by any other means at the micron scale. A range of “activating” stimuli can be used to put these structures in motion, and the type of the trigger plays a key role too: directional and dynamic stimuli (such as light) make it possible to activate the patterned anisotropic material locally and transiently, which enables one to achieve and further program motional complexity and communication in microactuators. In this Account, we will discuss recent advances in magnetic alignment of molecular anisotropy and its use in soft lithography and related fabrication approaches to create LCE microactuators. We will examine how design choices─from the molecular to the fabrication and the operational levels─control and define the achievable LCE deformations. We then address the role of stimuli in realizing the motional complexity and how one can engineer feedback within and communication between microactuator arrays fabricated by soft lithography. Overall, we outline emerging strategies that make possible a completely new approach to designing for desired sets of motions of active, microscale objects.

Acc. Mater. Res.