Manufacturing of complex objects is the key engine of technological progress. Learning to build smart, digital, and mechanically functional objects at the microscale could be as revolutionary as human-scale manufacturing. This grant will support research to develop a new way of meeting this challenging goal. It combines two technologies: modern magnetic information storage, which can create tiny magnets in any pattern desired, and ultrathin flexible materials that can bend in response to tiny forces. These will be combined with the design principles of colloidal systems, polymer physics, and molecular biology to create intelligent, functional objects, machines, and materials. The pieces will interact in a way analogous to the way DNA bases bind together, with magnets playing the role of the base pairs, and the thin materials playing the role of the DNA backbone. The magnetic information will determine how multiple strands connect and form complex structures and micron sized machines that can be controlled with external magnetic fields. These materials will ultimately have fundamental impacts on micro-engineering, with a range of potential applications, from materials to medicine. As such, this research will promote the progress of science and ultimately benefit the US economy and society. This research borrows concepts from a variety of fields - a multi-disciplinary approach that will help broaden participation of underrepresented groups in research and positively impact engineering and science education. For example, macroscopic analogs will be adopted into lending kits that will be used to explain the basic principles behind base paring in DNA and its assembly into DNA origami structures to impoverished communities in upper Appalachia.

Technical Abstract

This grant will support research aimed at building a new platform for self-assembly that uses panels with magnetic handshakes - microscopic patterns of magnetic dipoles - that enable panels to bond together using specific, intelligent interactions analogous to Watson-Crick base pairs in DNA. By fabricating these panels on nm thin elastic strands grown via atomic layer deposition, the panel sequence will determine how multiple strands connect to one another and form complex untethered structures and micron sized machines that can be manipulated with external magnetic fields. These handshake panels will be programmed using either magneto-optic recording (micron scale) or commercial scanned magnetic write head (50 nm scale). The resulting magnetic colloids, strands, or nets will be released from the substrate into solution, and allowed to bend, move, and assemble according to their designed interactions. The approach of the grant is to integrate design, macroscale models, advanced simulations, and experiment, to master the programmed self-assembly of these magnetic handshake materials. Overall, this strategy both takes advantage of the complementary binding principle behind current state of the art 3D DNA based assembly and overcomes many of its limitations, including vastly expanding the range of operating parameters such as temperature, solvent, etc. The resulting structures can be fully integrated with other lithographic elements (electronics, optics, etc.) and will have broad applications in sensing, actuation, and microrobotics at the cellular scale.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Materials Research (DMR)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Peter Anderson
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Harvard University
United States
Zip Code