Reconfigurable microbots folded from simple colloidal chains

Tao Yang, Brennan Sprinkle, Yang Guo, Jun Qian, Daoben Hua, Aleksandar Donev, David W.M. Marr, Ning Wu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


To overcome the reversible nature of low-Reynolds-number flow, a variety of biomimetic microrobotic propulsion schemes and devices capable of rapid transport have been developed. However, these approaches have been typically optimized for a specific function or environment and do not have the flexibility that many real organisms exhibit to thrive in complex microenvironments. Here, inspired by adaptable microbes and using a combination of experiment and simulation, we demonstrate that one-dimensional colloidal chains can fold into geometrically complex morphologies, including helices, plectonemes, lassos, and coils, and translate via multiple mechanisms that can be varied with applied magnetic field. With chains of multiblock asymmetry, the propulsion mode can be switched from bulk to surface-enabled, mimicking the swimming of microorganisms such as flagella-rotating bacteria and tail-whipping sperm and the surface-enabled motion of arching and stretching inchworms and sidewinding snakes. We also demonstrate that reconfigurability enables navigation through three-dimensional and narrow channels simulating capillary blood vessels. Our results show that flexible microdevices based on simple chains can transform both shape and motility under varying magnetic fields, a capability we expect will be particularly beneficial in complex in vivo microenvironments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)18186-18193
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number31
StatePublished - Aug 4 2020


  • Chain
  • Colloids
  • Directed assembly
  • Magnetic field
  • Microbot

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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