Tiny gears increase light-to-work conversion efficiency by five orders of magnitude (w/ video)

August 17, 2015 by Lisa Zyga feature
This microgear spins clockwise due to the temperature gradient between its inner and outer vertices, which causes capillary forces in the liquid to pull at the gear unevenly. Credit: Maggi, et al. ©2015 Nature Communications

(Phys.org)—Scientists have demonstrated that pinwheel-shaped microgears floating on a liquid surface can rotate at speeds of up to 300 r.p.m. when illuminated by an ordinary LED. This light-driven motion, which arises because the light creates a tiny temperature difference and, subsequently, a surface tension difference in the surrounding fluid, is about five orders of magnitude more efficient than other mechanisms that convert light into work. As the effect is not size-dependent, the scientists expect that the system could be scaled to both the macroscale and the nanoscale.

The researchers, Claudio Maggi and coauthors from the University of Rome, the Italian Institute of Technology in Genova, and the NANOTEC-CNR Institute of Nanotechnology in Rome, have published a paper on the new demonstration of light-to-work conversion in a recent issue of Nature Communications.

In their study, the scientists fabricated the microgears using laser lithography, coated them with a layer of amorphous carbon to increase light absorption, and immersed them in a liquid. They then deposited a small drop of the gear-containing liquid onto a microscope glass slide and illuminated it with an LED. While previous light-driven motors generally require high-power laser beams to induce motion, here the wide-field LED could induce motion with just a few microwatts of power per gear, corresponding to a 100,000 times higher light-to-work .

The reason for the increase in efficiency is that the new system operates under an entirely different light-to-work conversion mechanism. Previously, similar systems have relied on either the radiation pressured exerted by highly focused laser beams, or on thermophoresis, which is the slow migration of solid particles induced by thermal gradients in the surrounding fluid. To achieve thermophoresis, half of the particle is covered in a heat-absorbing coating, so that when exposed to strong illumination, the particle will be propelled along a temperature gradient.

Micromotors with asymmetric shape that efficiently convert light into work by thermocapillary effects. Credit: Maggi, et al. ©2015 Nature Communications

In the new system, the motors are entirely covered in a heat-absorbing coating, so that they are mostly uniformly heated. However, the inner vertices of each motor's pinwheel shape become hotter than the outer ones, which generates an asymmetric temperature gradient in the surrounding fluid. Since usually decreases with , this —even when as small as a few millikelvin—causes a surface tension gradient, meaning that capillary forces in the fluid pull at the microgears unevenly. The uneven pulling results in a net torque, causing the microgears to spin rapidly.

Images of the microgears and experimental setup. Credit: Maggi, et al. ©2015 Nature Communications

As the researchers explain, this effect is very similar to the Marangoni effect, which also involves a surface tension gradient. In the Marangoni effect, liquids and small objects placed on the surface of a fluid with a surface tension gradient will move from the region with the low surface tension toward the region with the higher surface tension. Although previous studies have used highly focused lasers to demonstrate Marangoni propulsion, this study marks the first time that it has been achieved with incoherent wide-field illumination, such as an ordinary LED.

In the future, this efficient light-driven motion could be used in a variety of applications on different scales, from miniature solar vehicles to nanomachines.

"Solar vehicles allow transport on land, water and in air using sunlight as a primary source of energy," Maggi told Phys.org. "The conversion of light into movement generally requires some transformation stages between different forms of energy. Typically they are electric vehicles powered by photovoltaic cells that convert in a first stage sunlight into electrical energy. This indirect strategy, however, involves a high degree of complexity that puts big limitations on the miniaturization of solar engines on the micrometer scale."

"On the other hand, the generation of propulsion on small scales is of crucial importance for the operation of micro and nanomachines within the so-called lab-on-a chip," said Roberto Di Leonardo at the Italian National Research Council, and the team coordinator. "Future research in this direction could lead to the development of micromachines that are capable of transporting tiny loads, such as individual cells, within miniaturized devices powered by the simple exposure to sunlight."

Explore further: Researchers manipulate gold-coated nanoparticles with lasers

More information: Claudio Maggi, et al. "Micromotors with asymmetric shape that efficiently convert light into work by thermocapillary effects." Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms8855

Lab webpage: http://glass.phys.uniroma1.it/dileonardo/index.php

Related Stories

Researchers identify movement of droplets on soft surfaces

August 5, 2015

Researchers from the University of Twente have succeeded in clearly identifying why droplets on soft, squishy surfaces react differently than on hard surfaces. A water droplet, for example, moves very differently over jelly ...

The Marangoni effect: A fluid phenom (w/ Video)

March 11, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- What do a wine glass on Earth and an International Space Station experiment have in common? Well, observing the wine glass would be one of few ways to see and understand the experiment being performed in ...

Recommended for you

Atomic blasting creates new devices to measure nanoparticles

December 14, 2017

Like sandblasting at the nanometer scale, focused beams of ions ablate hard materials to form intricate three-dimensional patterns. The beams can create tiny features in the lateral dimensions—length and width, but to create ...

Engineers create plants that glow

December 13, 2017

Imagine that instead of switching on a lamp when it gets dark, you could read by the light of a glowing plant on your desk.

Faster, more accurate cancer detection using nanoparticles

December 12, 2017

Using light-emitting nanoparticles, Rutgers University-New Brunswick scientists have invented a highly effective method to detect tiny tumors and track their spread, potentially leading to earlier cancer detection and more ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2015
Can this gear be connected to a shutter somehow, in order to create an optico-mechanical switch or something? I mean, for an optical computer and stuff?
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2015

the circuit would have to be water based, so not sure where you are going with this idea. The gear does not spin because of the light hitting it , it spins because of the difference in water temp, causing a difference in surface tension as it sits in water. This is a surface tension effect.
2 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2015
"As the effect is not size-dependent..."

Doesnt that mean that you cant really scale it up though?
2.7 / 5 (3) Aug 17, 2015
No wonder they avoid mentioning anything larger than "mini". For macro applications, gearing would be required to obtain macro-capable torques. One imagines some tree structure accumulating a zillion micro-torques into a single shaft... far more complicated and at least as inefficient as solar to electricity to motor.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 18, 2015
"Surface tension"? I think not. This is a thermodynamics reaction. The higher the temperature, the greater the motion of the liquid molecules. Also, the highest temperature is at the center where the axis exists, so any axis material would have to accommodated this high temperature.
not rated yet Aug 20, 2015
I wonder how much power is transmitted to the gear. They should tell it.
With a good transfer ratio, this could become a solar power generator provided the gear can generate a pulsating magnetic feld by rotating.

However the illumination power density indicated in the video of about 200 times the sun's doesn't bode well.
not rated yet Aug 20, 2015
The fire department believes that Aluminum dusts have a very strong explosion characteristic, placing them in the St 3 explosion class. Nano sized aluminum particles are called dust. In fact certain powders were found to explode upon dispersal without external ignition; i.e., no spark or heat was required to initiate the explosion. The explosion characteristics of nano metals are highly dependent on the manufacturer according to the fire department. One can explain the self ignition of these nanoparticles by the effect of light on the nanoparticles, THe light make them rotate so fast to self ignite.�

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.