A gel that communicates

A Jan. 8, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily highlights some work with oscillating gels being done at the University of Pittsburgh,

Self-moving gels can give synthetic materials the ability to “act alive” and mimic primitive biological communication, University of Pittsburgh researchers have found.

Anna Balazs, principal investigator of the study [published in the Jan. 8 print edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] and Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, has long studied the properties of the Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) gel, a material first fabricated in the late 1990s and shown to pulsate in the absence of any external stimuli.

The Jan. 8, 2013 University of Pittsburgh news release, which originated the news item, provides some history about the project and more details about the latest results,

In a previous study, the Pitt team noticed that long pieces of gel attached to a surface by one end “bent” toward one another, almost as if they were trying to communicate by sending signals. This hint that “chatter” might be taking place led the team to detach the fixed ends of the gels and allow them to move freely.

Balazs and her team developed a 3-D gel model to test the effects of the chemical signaling and light on the material. They found that when the gel pieces were moved far apart, they would automatically come back together, exhibiting autochemotaxis—the ability to both emit and sense a chemical, and move in response to that signal.

“This study demonstrates the ability of a synthetic material to actually ‘talk to itself’ and follow out a given action or command, similar to such biological species as amoeba and termites,” said Balazs. “Imagine a LEGO® set that could by itself unsnap its parts and then put itself back together again in different shapes but also allow you to control those shapes through chemical reaction and light.”

Here’s a link to the online version of the article,

Reconfigurable assemblies of active, autochemotactic gels” by Pratyush Dayal, Olga Kuksenok, and Anna C. Balazs. Published online before print December 27, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1213432110 PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]  December 27, 2012 201213432

This article is behind a paywall.

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