Microswimmers live in a world dominated by viscosity, and in viscous fluids, symmetric motion provides no propulsion. That’s why bacteria and other tiny organisms use cilia, corkscrew flagella, and other asymmetric means to swim. But a new study decouples the symmetry of a swimmer’s motion from the motion of the fluid, thereby creating a tiny symmetrically-driven swimmer that does swim.
Their microswimmer consists of two beads, which attract one another via surface tension and are repelled using external magnetic fields. This effectively creates a spring-like connection between the two beads, making them move in and out symmetrically in time. But since one bead is larger than the other, its greater inertia makes it slower to start moving and slower to coast to a stop. This inertial imbalance between the two is significant enough for the beads to swim. The key here is that though the beads’ motion relative to one another is symmetric, their motion relative to the fluid is not! (Image and research credit: M. Hubert et al.; via Science; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)