Liquid Crystalline Elastomers (LCEs) are very promising smart materials that can be made sensitive to different external stimuli, such as heat, pH, humidity and light, by changing their chemical composition. In this paper we report the implementation of a nematically aligned LCE actuator able to undergo large light-induced deformations. We prove that this property is still present even when the actuator is submerged in fresh water. Thanks to the presence of azo-dye moieties, capable of going through a reversible trans-cis photo-isomerization, and by applying light with two different wavelengths we managed to control the bending of such actuator in the liquid environment. The reported results represent the first step towards swimming microdevices powered by light.
While animals have access to sugars as energy source, this option is generally not available to artificial machines and robots. Energy delivery is thus the bottleneck for creating independent robots and machines, especially on micro- and nano- meter length scales. We have found a way to produce polymeric nano-structures with local control over the molecular alignment, which allowed us to solve the above issue. By using a combination of polymers, of which part is optically sensitive, we can create complex functional structures with nanometer accuracy, responsive to light. In particular, this allowed us to realize a structure that can move autonomously over surfaces (it can “walk”) using the environmental light as its energy source. The robot is only 60 μm in total length, thereby smaller than any known terrestrial walking species, and it is capable of random, directional walking and rotating on different dry surfaces.