One of the most interesting properties of living organisms is the way in which they can sense and respond to changes by moving. Movement has been essential to the survival of all life; even units as small as cells can react to different chemicals through movement. This is a phenomenon known as chemotaxis. Bacteria use chemotaxis to find sources of food, while white blood cells use chemotaxis to follow a chemical trail left by a virus, then find it and destroy it. Throughout areas of science, from robotics to drug delivery, if we could mimic a fraction of this fascinating complexity, the possibilities would be endless.
Imagine micro-structured vehicles, which could ‘navigate’ through complex fluidic environments, and could effectively ‘recognise’, ‘sense’, ‘diagnose’ and ‘treat’ a variety of conditions. This is exactly what this proposed project, ChemLife, will explore. I will make smart droplets which travel through complicated mazes by chemotaxis, communicate with each other, and move to find their partners or locate and neutralise a ‘droplet intruder’. Other biological systems have much more complicated means of movement, such as swimming, crawling or gliding along surfaces. In an attempt to replicate this, I will fabricate ‘swimmers’ and ‘crawlers’, from soft materials which will move independently and travel through liquids or at the bottom of fluidic channels. Not only will these micro-vehicles be able to travel inside fluids, but they will also be able to detect molecules, signal to other vehicles, and repair problems which they encounter. They underpin a key ambition of ChemLife: the realisation of a Biomimetic Toolbox, a library of adaptable vehicles, which can be demonstrated in a wide range of scenarios. The assembly of these micro-vehicles in to ‘smart’ societies which can perform complicated tasks would be a really exciting achievement, with the potential to become a disruptive foundational breakthrough for movement and transport at the micro-scale.
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