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Managing Editor  | October 2017

Nanoparticles with Playdough and Lego traits combined into tiny building blocks

Chemists from New York University (NYU) in Manhattan have created patchy particles with traits of popular childhood building blocks Playdough and Legos that self-assemble to create structures that are only 1/200th the width of a human hair.



Computer renderings illustrating the design of micro-structured patchy particles.
(Theodore Hueckel)


According to a report from NYU, “This process—self-assembly of pre-determined micro-architectures—is similar to the way atomic crystals self-assemble from a specific mixture of atomic building blocks.”


Researchers believe that colloidal self-assembly could “revolutionize” 3-D printing by producing tiny printed structures that are functional.


“While playdough involves squeezing together different colors of clay, colloidal fusion merges different chemical functionalities to create multi-functional—as opposed to multi-colored—particles that also contain instructions for self-assembly,” the article continued.


“This process is achieved by deploying software—called ‘Surface Evolver’—that is a simulation package similar to the software engineers use to design buildings.”


The software gives researchers a guide for how the cluster of particles will assemble during the colloidal fusion process.


The research was recently published in Nature. The abstract stated:


“Patches on the surfaces of colloidal particles provide directional information that enables the self-assembly of the particles into higher-order structures. Although computational tools can make quantitative predictions and can generate design rules that link the patch motif of a particle to its internal microstructure and to the emergent properties of the self-assembled materials, the experimental realization of model systems of particles with surface patches (or ‘patchy’ particles) remains a challenge.


“Synthetic patchy colloidal particles are often poor geometric approximations of the digital building blocks used in simulations and can only rarely be manufactured in sufficiently high yields to be routinely used as experimental model systems.


“Here we introduce a method, which we refer to as colloidal fusion, for fabricating functional patchy particles in a tunable and scalable manner. Using coordination dynamics and wetting forces, we engineer hybrid liquid–solid clusters that evolve into particles with a range of patchy surface morphologies on addition of a plasticizer.


“We are able to predict and control the evolutionary pathway by considering surface-energy minimization, leading to two main branches of product: first, spherical particles with liquid surface patches, capable of forming curable bonds with neighbouring particles to assemble robust supracolloidal structures; and second, particles with a faceted liquid compartment, which can be cured and purified to yield colloidal polyhedra.


“These findings outline a scalable strategy for the synthesis of patchy particles, first by designing their surface patterns by computer simulation, and then by recreating them in the laboratory with high fidelity.”

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