From one to many: Dynamic assembly and collective behavior of self-propelled colloidal motors

Wei Wang, Wentao Duan, Suzanne Ahmed, Ayusman Sen, Thomas E. Mallouk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

243 Scopus citations


ConspectusThe assembly of complex structures from simpler, individual units is a hallmark of biology. Examples include the pairing of DNA strands, the assembly of protein chains into quaternary structures, the formation of tissues and organs from cells, and the self-organization of bacterial colonies, flocks of birds, and human beings in cities. While the individual behaviors of biomolecules, bacteria, birds, and humans are governed by relatively simple rules, groups assembled from many individuals exhibit complex collective behaviors and functions that do not exist in the absence of the hierarchically organized structure.Self-assembly is a familiar concept to chemists who study the formation and properties of monolayers, crystals, and supramolecular structures. In chemical self-assembly, disorder evolves to order as the system approaches equilibrium. In contrast, living assemblies are typically characterized by two additional features: (1) the system constantly dissipates energy and is not at thermodynamic equilibrium; (2) the structure is dynamic and can transform or disassemble in response to stimuli or changing conditions. To distinguish them from equilibrium self-assembled structures, living (or nonliving) assemblies of objects with these characteristics are referred to as active matter.In this Account, we focus on the powered assembly and collective behavior of self-propelled colloids. These nano- and microparticles, also called nano- and micromotors or microswimmers, autonomously convert energy available in the environment (in the form of chemical, electromagnetic, acoustic, or thermal energy) into mechanical motion. Collections of these colloids are a form of synthetic active matter. Because of the analogy to living swimmers of similar size such as bacteria, the dynamic interactions and collective behavior of self-propelled colloids are interesting in the context of understanding biological active matter and in the development of new applications. The progression from individual particle motion to pairwise interactions, and then to multiparticle behavior, can be studied systematically with colloidal particles. Colloidal particles are also amenable to designs (in terms of materials, shapes, and sizes) that are not readily available in, for example, microbial systems. We review here our efforts and those of other groups in studying these fundamental interactions and the collective behavior that emerges from them. Although this field is still very new, there are already unique and interesting applications in analysis, diagnostics, separations, and materials science that derive from our understanding of how powered colloids interact and assemble.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1938-1946
Number of pages9
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 21 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Chemistry(all)


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