A new two-dimensional film, made of polymers and nanoparticles and developed by researchers at the Berkeley Lab, can direct two different non-mixing liquids into a variety of exotic architectures. This finding could lead to soft robotics, liquid circuitry, shape-shifting fluids, and a host of new materials that use soft, rather than solid, substances.
The study, reported today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, presents the newest entry in a class of substances known as bicontinuous jammed emulsion gels, or bijels, which hold promise as a malleable liquid that can support catalytic reactions, electrical conductivity, and energy conversion.
Bijels are typically made of immiscible, or non-mixing, liquids. People who shake their bottle of vinaigrette before pouring the dressing on their salad are familiar with such liquids. As soon as the shaking stops, the liquids start to separate again, with the lower density liquid – often oil – rising to the top.
Bijels are notoriously difficult to make, however, involving exact temperatures at precisely timed stages. In addition, the liquid channels are normally more than 5 micrometers across, making them too large to be useful in energy conversion and catalysis.
The method described in this new study simplifies the bijel process by first using specially coated particles about 10-20 nanometers in diameter. The smaller-sized particles line the liquid interfaces much more quickly than the ones used in traditional bijels, making the smaller channels that are highly valued for applications.
The researchers were able to prepare new bijels from a variety of common organic, water-insoluble solvents, such as toluene, that had ligands dissolved in it, and deionized water, which contained the nanoparticles. To ensure thorough mixing of the liquids, they subjected the emulsion to a vortex spinning at 3,200 revolutions per minute.
Nanoparticles had not been seriously considered in bijels before because their small size made them hard to trap in the liquid interface. To resolve that problem, the researchers coated nano-sized particles with carboxylic acids and put them in water. They then took polymers with an added amine group – a derivative of ammonia – and dissolved them in the toluene.
This configuration took advantage of the amine group’s affinity to water, a characteristic that is comparable to surfactants, like soap. Their nanoparticle “supersoap” was designed so that the nanoparticles join ligands, forming an octopus-like shape with a polar head and nonpolar legs that get jammed at the interface, the researchers said.