Material scientists reconfigure gels using only light
2013-08-06 0:00

By Olivia Solon | Wired

Material scientists have managed to move and reconfigure a type of gel using only light.

A research team from the University of Pittsburgh has demonstrated the ability to manipulate hydrogels -- the material that most contact lenses are made out of -- and has published their work in Advanced Functional Materials.

Lead author Anna Balazs, a Pitt Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, explains: "Imagine an apartment with a particular arrangement of rooms all in one location. Now, consider the possibility of being able to shine a particular configuration of lights on this structure and thereby completely changing not only the entire layout, but also the location of the apartment. This is what weve demonstrated with hydrogels."

Balazs worked with associate professor Olga Kuksenok to explore the behaviour of a type of hydrogel containing spirobenzopyran molecules. Previous studies have shown that this sort of material has the extraordinary property of being "photoswitchable": in the dark it is hydrophilic (likes water) but in the light it becomes hydrophobic. It is by exploiting this property that Balazs and Kuksenok could use light to tailor the gels shape.

The gels appeared to "run away" when exposed to light and heat, showing "direct, sustained motion". They believe this could mean that they could use light to regulate the movement of a microscopic conveyor belt or elevator made from the gel.


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