Materials that can be moved with light are rapidly developing in the hands of the Smart Photonic Materials research team. Inspiration has been sought, among other places, from the plant kingdom and the human eye.
“Microbotics and photonic applications go hand in hand: Progress in one field promotes progress in the other as well," says Arri Priimägi.
In last year’s first issue of Interface, Academy Research Fellow, Assistant Professor (tenure track) Arri Priimägi talked about polymers whose shape can be altered with light. Since then, the research has progressed fast. During the last six months, Priimägi’s team has learned to produce the necessary polymers from a liquid-crystal material. In the presentation video, a twisted polymer opens up slowly, controlled by light, and another one begins to vibrate wildly. Now the researchers are interested in pinpointing and developing different applications.
“’Let’s make it smart‘ has been our recent slogan. In addition to movement, we are studying how polymer could recognise objects and select the right one,” says Arri Priimägi, head of the Smart Photonic Materials team at TUT’s Laboratory of Chemistry and Bioengineering.
Next the colours
Inspiration for smart polymers comes from nature. The team is working, for example, on an artificial iris that controls the amount of light by opening and closing itself, just like the iris in the human eye. The development of a grabbing polymer grip, which Priimägi compares to the Venus flytrap plant, has reached the furthest.
“The flytrap is open and waiting for a fly to land in its jaws. It can tell whether there is a speck of dust or a fly sitting on its surface – only a fly can make the plant close up. We aim to do the same with our ’flytrap‘,” says Priimägi.
The optical flytrap that Priimägi’s team has developed is a strip of polymer less than one centimetre long and is powered with blue light. When one of the objects underneath the polymer reflects light back in the right way, the polymer snaps itself around the object. It has a lifting capacity of several hundreds of times its own weight.
“Next we want to teach our flytrap to recognise colours,” Arri Priimägi explains.
“Future applications for an optical flytrap like this might be found at a production line, where it could separate and remove defective products. But for a start, we can use it to study many basic research questions,” Priimägi reminds.
Who would develop the tripod?
In twelve months, the research into light-controlled microbotics will have taken another step forward.
“Microbotics and photonic applications go hand in hand: Progress in one field promotes progress in the other, as well.”
The researchers are using ’what if‘ thinking. The light-controlled polymers are such a new approach to robotics, for example, that new ideas for both basic research and applications pop up constantly.
“For example, we have polymer ’tripods,’ currently used mainly for demonstration purposes, that try to hide from light. We mostly know how to control their movements based on the properties of the surface they are moving on. The future aim is to increase the number of their legs and learn how to move them better. This might be a good project for a motivated student working on their MSc thesis,” Priimägi hints.
Bravely from one laboratory to another
Arri Priimägi’s Smart Photonic Materials team that studies light-controlled polymers consists of approximately 15 physicists and chemists.
“We have an excellent team. Both physicists and chemists are needed to do research in this field,” Priimägi says.
“I would like students to be open-minded and brave about finding out what kind of research topics might be offered in laboratories that are not closely related to their own major subject.”
Priimägi’s multidisciplinary team has several international researchers that are able to participate thanks to funding offered by TUT.
“The main researchers in the subjects introduced here are Dr Hao Zeng and Doctoral Student Owies Wani. The former receives funding from TUT’s postdoctoral researcher programme, and the latter through TUT’s graduate school. The funding channels offered by TUT have been extremely important to our research.”
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