Scientists Develop Plant-inspired Device That Adapts To The Environment

By Aaryaa Padhyegurjar

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Living organisms have always kickstarted lots of new innovative technical designs, putting scientists on the hunt for the next big thing! This time, it was the clover plant (Oxalis corniculata). 

Engineering experts at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) have created an origami microfluidic system that can adapt to changes in the environment, such as temperature, light intensity, and humidity. The device’s responsive movement follows the preset origami folds thanks to its foldable design. This ground-breaking engineering concept was featured on the cover of Science Advances. The research team was supervised by Professor Anderson Ho Cheung Shum and led by Dr. Yi Pan from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at HKU.

Plant-inspired TOM (Credit: University of Hong Kong)

To underscore the tight connection between its change and the origami structure, the research team termed the transformable microfluidic device ‘TransfOrigami microfluidics’ (TOM). For many years, the microchannel structure of microfluidic devices remained restricted to a 2D plane. TOM is a one-of-a-kind 3D microfluidic structure developed by the HKU research team that responds to environmental stimuli by folding like a clover plant.

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“TOM can be used as an environmentally adaptive photomicroreactor. It senses the environmental stimuli and feeds them back positively into the microfluid that is undergoing photosynthesis through the morphological transformation,” said Dr. Pan. “When the external environment is suitable for photosynthesis, for example, on a sunny day, the device unfolds to promote photosynthesis. When the external environment is not conducive to photosynthesis, such as on a rainy day, the device folds to slow down the photosynthesis,” he added.

TOM, along with organs-on-chips, could be used to develop a dynamic artificial vascular network. “As we know, living organisms are normally dynamic and have a certain moving rhythm. When the developed organ chip is equipped with the function of responsive movement, it will be closer to the real living organism, which may help us to simulate the function of organs in microfluidic devices (organs-on-chips) more effectively,” said Professor Shum.

Also, shape-adaptive flexible electronics could be created using TOM and flexible electronics. “The surface of the human body is mostly curved. In wearable flexible electronics, the surface conformity between the device and the human body will affect the efficiency of signal induction. If the flexible electronics can deform in response to the stimulus, they may help the device to transform better into the shape of human body surface to improve the performance of flexible electronics,” Professor Shum added.

Click here to access their paper. Click here to watch their demos.


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