Research ArticleMICROROBOTS

A microrobotic platform actuated by thermocapillary flows for manipulation at the air-water interface

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Science Robotics  31 Mar 2021:
Vol. 6, Issue 52, eabd3557
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.abd3557

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Abstract

Future developments in micromanufacturing will require advances in micromanipulation tools. Several robotic micromanipulation methods have been developed to position micro-objects mostly in air and in liquids. The air-water interface is a third medium where objects can be manipulated, offering a good compromise between the two previously mentioned ones. Objects at the interface are not subjected to stick-slip due to dry friction in air and profit from a reduced drag compared with those in water. Here, we present the ThermoBot, a microrobotic platform dedicated to the manipulation of objects placed at the air-water interface. For actuation, ThermoBot uses a laser-induced thermocapillary flow, which arises from the surface stress caused by the temperature gradient at the fluid interface. The actuated objects can reach velocities up to 10 times their body length per second without any on-board actuator. Moreover, the localized nature of the thermocapillary flow enables the simultaneous and independent control of multiple objects, thus paving the way for microassembly operations at the air-water interface. We demonstrate that our setup can be used to direct capillary-based self-assemblies at this interface. We illustrate the ThermoBot’s capabilities through three examples: simultaneous control of up to four spheres, control of complex objects in both position and orientation, and directed self-assembly of multiple pieces.

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