For humans, swimming is relatively easy. Kick your legs, wheel your arms, and you’ll move forward. But for microswimmers, swimming can be more complicated. For them, the world is a viscous place, and the rules that we swim by can’t help them get around. In a highly viscous world, flows are reversible. Kick one limb down and you might move forward, but when you pull the limb up, you’ll be sucked right back to where you started. So microswimmers must use asymmetry in their swimming. In other words, their recovery stroke cannot be the mirror-image of their power stroke.
A new study suggests that simple elastic spheres could make good microswimmers through cyclic inflation and deflation. When the sphere deflates, it buckles, making a shape unlike its inflating one. This difference in shape change is enough to propel the sphere a little with each cycle. Right now the test system is a macroscale one, but the researchers hope to continue miniaturizing. (Image and research credit: A. Djellouli et al.; via APS Physics; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)