Continuous Flow Microfluidic Production of Arbitrarily Long Tubular Liquid Crystal Elastomer Peristaltic Pump Actuators

Small. 2023 Mar;19(13):e2204693. doi: 10.1002/smll.202204693. Epub 2022 Dec 9.


While liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs) are ideal materials for soft-robotic actuators, filling the role of muscle and shape-defining material simultaneously, it is non-trivial to give them ground state shapes beyond simple sheets or fibers. Here tubular LCE actuators scalable to arbitrary length are produced using a continuous three-phase coaxial flow microfluidic process. By pumping an oligomeric precursor solution between inner and outer aqueous phases in a cylindrically symmetric nested capillary set-up, and by reducing the interfacial tension to negligible values using surfactants adapted to each phase, the tubular liquid flow is stabilized over distances more than 200 times the diameter or 2000 times the thickness. In situ photocrosslinking of the middle phase turns it into an LCE network that is flow-aligned by the shear gradient over the phase. The reversible actuation of the tubes upon heating yields a reduction of the interior space, pumping out enclosed fluid, and the relaxation upon cooling leads to the fluid being sucked back in. By moving a local heat source along the tube, it acts as a peristaltic pump. It is proposed that the tubes could, pending functionalization for light-triggered actuation, function as active synthetic vasculature in biological contexts.

Keywords: interface stabilization; liquid crystal elastomer actuators; negative order parameter; nested capillary microfluidics; tubular coaxial flow.