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John O | April 2017

Brandeis researchers take first step towards self-propelled liquid

Researchers at Brandeis University Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) in Waltham, Mass. have reported the first steps have been taken towards liquids that can flow without human or mechanical effort, which could be a breakthrough in oil and water pipelines as well as liquid cooling systems.



Brandeis researchers created self-propelled liquid. See it in motion
in the video below. (YouTube)


This breakthrough was accomplished by reproducing the complex processes that allow cells to change shape and adapt to their environment, according to a report on the Brandeis website.


“Cells can do this because the building blocks of its scaffolding — hollow cylindrical tubes called microtubules — are capable of self-transformation,” the article explained. “The microtubules grow, shrink, bend and stretch, altering the cell’s underlying structure.”


Microtubules were taken from a cow’s brain and put into a watery solution. Researchers added kinesin and adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which are common molecules in cells.


The article continued, “The microtubules aligned parallel to each other. A kinesin molecule came between them, connecting them like a tie between rail tracks. Using the ATP as a fuel source, the kinesin began moving. Its top went in one direction, the bottom in another. The microtubules slid away from each other, and the structure broke apart.”


The separation was only temporary, as new kinesin would come through and bind to a new molecule. This process of attachment and breaking apart caused swirling patterns in the liquid and the researchers were able to create a coherent flow that moved the liquid forward, which was a first.


A report by Gizmodo on the breakthrough added, “Liquid cooling systems that increase a computer’s capabilities by keeping its processor cool require a motorized pump to keep the coolant flowing. That’s fine for a device that’s always plugged in, but what about the computer that lives in your pocket? This research could allow smartphones to have their own liquid cooling systems that vastly boost processing power without draining batteries.”


The research was recently published in Science. The abstract stated:


“Transport of fluid through a pipe is essential for the operation of macroscale machines and microfluidic devices. Conventional fluids only flow in response to external pressure. We demonstrate that an active isotropic fluid, composed of microtubules and molecular motors, autonomously flows through meter-long three-dimensional channels.


“We establish control over the magnitude, velocity profile, and direction of the self-organized flows and correlate these to the structure of the extensile microtubule bundles. The inherently three-dimensional transition from bulk-turbulent to confined-coherent flows occurs concomitantly with a transition in the bundle orientational order near the surface and is controlled by a scale-invariant criterion related to the channel profile.


“The nonequilibrium transition of confined isotropic active fluids can be used to engineer self-organized soft machines.”


Watch the microtubules in motion in this brief video below:

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