Swimming Microdroplets

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Simple systems can sometimes have surprisingly complex behaviors. In this video, the Lutetium Project outlines a scheme for swimming microdroplets. Most of the droplets shown are just water, but they’re released into a chamber filled with a mixture of oil and surfactants. All flow through the chamber is shut off, but the droplets swim around in complicated, disordered patterns anyway. To see why, we have to zoom way in. The surfactant molecules in the oil cluster around the droplets, orienting so that their hydrophobic parts are in the oil and their hydrophilic parts point toward the water. They actually draw some of the water out of the droplets. This creates a variation in surface tension that causes Marangoni flow, making the droplets swim. Over time, the droplets shrink and slow down as the surfactants pull away more and more of their water and the variations in surface tension get smaller. (Image and video credit: The Lutetium Project; research credit: Z. Izri et al.)

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