In the heart of a laboratory at the University of Colorado, Boulder, a research team has created a discovery that could change our relationship with light. Researchers have created organic nanocrystals which, under the effect of light, generate a mechanical force capable of lifting a mass 1000 times greater than their own.
The most interesting part of the research published on Nature Materials (I link it to you here) is that this transformation takes place without the aid of heat or electricity. An exciting prospect that opens up new avenues for materials science and engineering.
The power of nanocrystals
Light has always played a central role in our existence. It does it all: drives our circadian rhythms, feeds plants through photosynthesis, and lights up our world. It can even affect our vision and mental pathways, according to the latest research in the field of optogenetics.
Now, thanks to advances in materials science, light is proving to have even greater potential.
The nanocrystals developed by researchers at University of Colorado, Boulder they are photomechanical materials designed to directly transform light into mechanical force. A transformation resulting from a delicate balance between photochemistry, polymer chemistry, physics, mechanics, optics and engineering.
A step forward in materials science
The team led by Ryan Hayward has taken research on these materials to a new level. Organic nanocrystals not only bend under the effect of light, but also lift objects heavier than themselves. Much heavier. As Hayward himself explained, they "cut out the middleman" and directly transformed light energy into mechanical deformation.
As with any quest of this type, of course, there were challenges to overcome. One of the major challenges with photochemical materials has been generating a large-scale mechanical response from molecular-level motions. This requires that the reactive molecules be organized so that they all push in the same direction.
The solution? The use of organic nanocrystals of diarylethene as a photoactive component, inserted into a polymeric material with pores of micrometric dimensions.
The application potential
While there is still work to be done, as Hayward pointed out, this research represents a significant step towards a future in which light could become an even more powerful source of mechanical energy. To say the least: imagine robots, vehicles or drones powered by laser beams instead of heavy batteries. And not only:
- Medicine and Health: Photomechanical actuators could be used in miniaturized medical devices, such as microrobots that, once introduced into the body, can be guided and activated by light to perform precision surgery or to deliver drugs directly to the site of interest.
- Energy and Environment: These nanocrystals could be integrated into next-generation solar panels, directly converting sunlight into mechanical motion, which could then be converted into electrical energy. This could make solar panels more efficient and versatile.
- Consumer electronics: Flexible and foldable electronic devices, such as smartphones or tablets, could use these nanocrystals to change their shape or position in response to light. For example, a screen that folds or automatically adjusts to surrounding lighting conditions.
In summary, it seems that the road to a future fueled by light is even more illuminated.