A group of researchers led by the University of California San Diego has pioneered the development of pliable, long-lasting 3D-printed materials that exhibit a striking luminescence in response to various mechanical stresses, including compression, stretching, and twisting. These exceptional materials draw their radiant glow from microscopic, single-celled algae known as dinoflagellates.
Inspired by the awe-inspiring bioluminescent displays observed during red tide phenomena at San Diego’s picturesque beaches, this innovative work was documented in a publication dated October 20 and made available through Science Advances.
One of the most remarkable aspects of these materials lies in their inherent simplicity – they require no electronic components or external power sources. As elaborated by study senior author Shengqiang Cai, a professor specializing in mechanical and aerospace engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, “We demonstrate how we can harness the power of nature to directly convert mechanical stimuli into light emission.”
The research project was a collaborative effort spanning multiple disciplines, bringing together engineers and materials scientists from Cai’s laboratory, marine biologist Michael Latz from UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and physics professor Maziyar Jalaal from the University of Amsterdam.
The fundamental components of these captivating bioluminescent materials consist of dinoflagellates and a seaweed-based polymer called alginate. These constituents were blended to form a solution, which was then subjected to 3D printing technology to craft an array of diverse shapes, including grids, spirals, spiderwebs, balls, blocks, and pyramid-like structures. The 3D-printed structures subsequently underwent a curing process as the final step in the manufacturing process.
When these materials encounter compression, stretching, or twisting, the embedded dinoflagellates respond by emitting a radiant light. This remarkable reaction mirrors the natural occurrence in the ocean, where dinoflagellates produce luminous flashes as part of their predator defense strategy. During tests, the materials displayed their luminosity when subjected to pressure, and when patterns were traced on their surfaces. Impressively, the materials were sensitive enough to illuminate under the pressure exerted by a foam ball rolling upon them.
The intensity of the emitted light corresponded directly to the magnitude of the applied stress, with greater stress yielding a brighter glow. The researchers went a step further by quantifying this behavior and crafting a mathematical model that could predict the luminous intensity based on the level of mechanical stress applied.
In an effort to enhance the materials’ resilience in various experimental conditions, the researchers employed specific techniques. To fortify the materials and enable them to withstand significant mechanical loads, they incorporated a second polymer called poly(ethylene glycol) diacrylate into the original mixture. Additionally, coating the materials with a flexible, rubber-like polymer known as Ecoflex provided safeguarding against acidic and basic solutions. Thanks to this protective layer, the materials could endure immersion in seawater for up to five months without losing their structural integrity or bioluminescent properties.
These materials also exhibit the advantage of minimal maintenance requirements. The dinoflagellates enclosed within necessitate periodic cycles of light and darkness to continue functioning. During the light phase, they engage in photosynthesis to generate sustenance and energy, which is subsequently employed in the dark phase to emit light when subjected to mechanical stress. This behavior mirrors the natural processes observed when dinoflagellates trigger bioluminescence in the ocean during red tide events.
Study first author Chenghai Li, a mechanical and aerospace engineering Ph.D. candidate in Cai’s laboratory, expressed, “This current work demonstrates a simple method to combine living organisms with non-living components to fabricate novel materials that are self-sustaining and are sensitive to fundamental mechanical stimuli found in nature.”
The researchers envision a range of potential applications for these materials, including their use as mechanical sensors to gauge pressure, strain, or stress. Furthermore, they foresee applications in soft robotics and biomedical devices that leverage light signals for treatments or controlled drug release.
However, realizing these applications requires further refinements and optimizations in the materials, and the researchers are diligently working towards that goal.
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