Chemists in Japan have created light-driven polymer films that can walk like inchworms and move like robotic arms. 

The films, made by Tomiki Ikeda at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Yokahama and collaborators, contain a polymer which contracts and expands under different light sources.  The polymers contain N=N double bonds that under visible light have a cis conformation which means the polymer is bent. But when the light source is changed to UV the bonds become trans and the polymer flattens.

To make the polymer walk, the group incorporated it in a laminated film with one pointed end (at the back of the ‘worm’) and one flat end (at the front of the ‘worm’). As the polymer bends the pointed back end is dragged forward then, when the light source is changed to UV, the polymer flattens, pushing the front flat end forward. This continuous flattening–bending motion allows the film to ‘inch’ forward.

The robotic arm also uses clever lamination, but this time the polymer layer and laminated sections are alternated along the length of the film. By controlling the intensity of the light and the position on the film where the light is concentrated, the researchers can make the ‘arm’ move as they chose.

To see movies of this polymer in action and learn about possible applications for this exciting research, see Ruth Doherty’s Chemical Science article.

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