Mimicking the locomotive abilities of living organisms on the microscale, where the downsizing of rigid parts and circuitry presents inherent problems, is a complex feat. In nature, many soft-bodied organisms (inchworm, leech) have evolved simple, yet efficient locomotion strategies in which reciprocal actuation cycles synchronize with spatiotemporal modulation of friction between their bodies and environment. We developed microscopic (∼100 μm) hydrogel crawlers that move in aqueous environment through spatiotemporal modulation of the friction between their bodies and the substrate. Thermo-responsive poly-n-isopropyl acrylamide hydrogels loaded with gold nanoparticles shrink locally and reversibly when heated photothermally with laser light. The out-of-equilibrium collapse and reswelling of the hydrogel is responsible for asymmetric changes in the friction between the actuating section of the crawler and the substrate. This friction hysteresis, together with off-centered irradiation, results in directional motion of the crawler. We developed a model that predicts the order of magnitude of the crawler motion (within 50%) and agrees with the observed experimental trends. Crawler trajectories can be controlled enabling applications of the crawler as micromanipulator that can push small cargo along a surface.
- friction hysteresis