February's Paper of the Month

 There is great desire to create self-oscillating systems, such as the natural circadian rhythm of flowers, as such systems would have an incredible number of applications in different fields. 

There is great desire to create self-oscillating systems, such as the natural circadian rhythm of flowers, as such systems would have an incredible number of applications in different fields. 

In nature, it is common to find self-oscillating systems. These systems are either self-regulated or respond to external stimuli. Recreating this process synthetically is of great interest to scientists yet currently, there are only several attempted examples, all chemically driven and within non-dry systems. However, a light driven non-invasive system which would work in dry environments would prove to be much more useful. 

Self-oscillating actuators would have incredible application in self-cleaning devices and even as a renewable energy source, by converting solar energy into kinetic energy. 

February’s Paper of the Month is a collaboration between the Humboldt University of Berlin and the Eindhoven University of Technology. They attempted to address the need for an external stimulus driven actuator by creating a synthetic material which responds in an oscillatory fashion when exposed to a light stimulus. 

Azobenzenes are chemicals which can undergo a reversible reaction when exposed to light. These photo-reversible molecules are traditionally triggered by ultra-violet (UV) and blue light, causing a cis-trans isomerisation. This reaction can be utilised in self-oscillating actuators because of the reversible cis-trans isomerisations which make the film “move”. However, UV light eventually deteriorates the azobenzene, so creating a permanent self-oscillator requires tuning to less damaging electromagnetic waves such as visible light. 

Recent work has shown fluorinated azobenzene undergo cis-trans isomerisations with blue and green light, proving a viable candidate for incorporation into their actuator film research. 

They developed a liquid crystal polymer film doped with fluorinated azobenzene to test its oscillating prowess in the presence of only visible light. 

The liquid crystal film alignments were characterised using polarised light transmission microscopy and a THMS600. The THMS600 was used to determine the liquid crystal phase and alignment of the samples. The characterisation was vital for understanding and creating actuators with specific response properties. 

The polymer was sliced into a splay orientation to maximise film bending and was placed in sunlight. The exposure to light induced continuous bending in the polymer with no obvious frequency or pattern of oscillation.

 Two superimposed freeze frames of the moving actuator. The red lines illustrate the top of the position of the film at the point the video was frozen. A notable change in position can be seen.  

Two superimposed freeze frames of the moving actuator. The red lines illustrate the top of the position of the film at the point the video was frozen. A notable change in position can be seen.  

To account for the effect of air currents, a control experiment was conducted by comparing the movements of a non-oscillating film with the fluorinated azobenzene film. The non-oscillator was created from a liquid crystal mixture and hydrogen azobenzene which is non-responsive to light. Both films were placed together and exposed to sunlight. The H-Azobenzene showed no movement indicating the oscillating behaviour in the fluorinated azobenzene was not due to air currents but the light induced changes in the film.   

Further experimentation found the experiments to be reversible with the number of cis and trans isomerisations determining the degree of bending. 
Professor Albert Schenning, from the Eindhoven University of Technology, said of the work:

 “A polymer actuator has been fabricated that is capable of continuous chaotic oscillatory motion when exposed to ambient sunlight in air. This work constitutes an important step towards the realisation of autonomous, persistently self-propelling machines and self-cleaning surfaces powered by sunlight. 

The actuator is based on a liquid crystalline polymer film doped with a visible light responsive fluorinated azobenzene. The alignment and the phase behaviour of the mixture was fully characterised by an optical microscope equipped with a Linkam hot stage. Such an analysis is crucial to prepare actuators with programmed response properties.”

Currently it is difficult to quantify the results but the experiments show promise for future applications in self-cleaning devices and possibly as a solar energy converter.  

By Tabassum Mujtaba

Kumar, K. et al. A chaotic self-oscillating sunlight-driven polymer actuator. Nat. Commun. 7:11975 doi: 10.1038/ncomms11975 (2016).