- Open Access
Interactive actuation of multiple opto-thermocapillary flow-addressed bubble microrobots
© Hu et al.; licensee Springer. 2014
Received: 4 July 2014
Accepted: 29 September 2014
Published: 23 October 2014
Opto-thermocapillary flow-addressed bubble (OFB) microrobots are a potential tool for the efficient transportation of micro-objects. This microrobot system uses light patterns to generate thermal gradients within a liquid medium, creating thermocapillary forces that actuate the bubble microrobots. An interactive control system that includes scanning mirrors and a touchscreen interface was developed to address up to ten OFB microrobots. Using this system, the parallel and cooperative transportation of 20-μm-diameter polystyrene beads was demonstrated.
Microrobots, nontethered microstructures that can physically manipulate objects, are flexible tools for micro-transportation. Various types of microrobots have successfully transported objects such as microbeads -, microgels , and single cells ,.
Microrobotic transportation has two advantages when compared to tools such as optical tweezers, optically induced dielectrophoresis (ODEP), and micromanipulators. First, microrobotic transportation does not rely on the optical properties or chemistry of the target objects and the surrounding medium. In contrast, optical tweezers require a refractive index difference between the objects and medium . The medium properties can also play a role in ODEP manipulation, as the electrical conductivity of the medium can affect the electric field gradients that create the dielectrophoretic force . Secondly, although the most widely used micromanipulators can achieve high velocities during manipulation, their throughput is still limited , as this is a serial form of manipulation. Parallel operation of multiple micromanipulators is limited by the working space, due to the macroscale components of the micromanipulators. In contrast, the parallel transportation of microrobots has been demonstrated ,-.
One method for achieving parallel microrobot actuation used frequency-selective microrobots that have mechanical responses at different resonant frequencies . Time-division-multiplexed control signals were sent to two magnetic microrobots to achieve simultaneous, independent locomotion. Other frequency-based addressing methods were applied to three magnetic stick–slip microrobots, independently addressed in parallel , and to helical microrobots to enable different swimming velocities . Other methods of controlling multiple magnetic microrobots include having differing magnetization strengths  or temporarily disabling the magnetization of the microrobots . Electrostatic actuation was another method used, where slight variations in microrobot dimensions enabled independent addressing ,.
However, to simultaneously actuate more microrobots independently by magnetic force or electrostatic force, more complicated control and fabrication methods will be necessary. It is difficult to generate localized magnetic fields at the microscale, so each microrobot has to be fabricated slightly differently in order to be addressed independently using the methods mentioned above.
It is straightforward to create multiple localized optical patterns by using optical elements such as micromirrors , spatial light modulators , or scanning mirrors . Optical tweezers and OET take advantage of this capability to manipulate multiple targets at the same time ,. This feature of optically addressed systems is also inherent in the opto-thermocapillary flow-addressed bubble (OFB) microrobot system ,. However, unlike ODEP and optical tweezers, the OFB microrobots are gas bubbles in a liquid medium. The actuation of the OFB microrobots is less dependent on the material property and does not require direct laser or electrical field penetration through target objects, limiting the potential for damage to the objects under manipulation.
OFB microrobots have transported microbeads , cell-laden hydrogels ,, and single cells ,. Although possible, the parallel and independent addressing of more than five OFB microrobots has not been demonstrated. In this paper, multiple OFB microrobots were addressed by an interactive control system with a scanning mirror. Up to ten OFB microrobots are addressed and configured. In addition, four OFB microrobots were used to simultaneously pattern microbeads in hydrogel prepolymer. Microbeads were also handled by four OFB microrobots to demonstrate its cooperative working ability.
The OFB microrobot actuation takes place on an absorbing substrate. The absorbing layer on the substrate is made of a layer of indium tin oxide (ITO) that is 100 nm in thickness, topped with a layer of 1-μm-thick amorphous silicon (α-Si). This absorbing layer is able to convert light energy into heat. The ITO layer also serves as an adhesion layer for the α-Si.
The centerpiece of the scanning mirror control system is a custom script that uses the MATLAB Image Acquisition Toolbox to determine the positions of the light patterns on the second computer monitor. The x and y positions of the light patterns are recorded using units of pixels, which are converted to analog voltages by the MATLAB script. Subsequently, the script uses the MATLAB Data Acquisition Toolbox to queue the analog voltages into a data acquisition unit (DAQ; National Instruments USB-3653, National Instruments Corporation, Austin, TX, USA). The DAQ outputs the voltages to the control circuits of the scanning mirror system, thereby controlling the position of the mirrors. Thus, the scanning mirrors are adjusted to the correct angles to redirect the laser to the corresponding position on the substrate.
The scanning mirror finishes scanning through all the points of the light patterns in 0.05 s per cycle of the control script, independent of how many points there are in the cycle. Bubbles can be generated immediately in the liquid medium by the laser illumination, and longer illumination durations lead to larger bubble sizes . To control the bubble size, the heat generation at each location can be further controlled by pulsing the laser at various frequencies and duty cycles. This is controlled by a TTL signal provided by a function generator (Agilent 33220A, Agilent Technologies, Santa Clara, CA, USA). In the experiments presented here, the laser pulse frequency was 400 Hz, and the laser pulse width was 100 μs. This resulted in bubbles with diameters ranging from 7 to 10 μm, with an average diameter of 8 μm. The bubbles do not collapse during the experiments, as the laser pulse rate is rapid enough to maintain the bubble. However, if the laser is switched off, the bubble will collapse within 2 s due to the Laplace pressure. Under these actuation conditions, the OFB microrobots can move up to 500 μm/s.
The current control system requires two computers, one running the Processing program for the pattern generation subsystem and one running the MATLAB script for the scanning mirror control subsystem, as well as an extra monitor. It is currently nontrivial to create MATLAB scripts that will support touchscreen input, so this hardware workaround was implemented to take advantage of the image processing of MATLAB and the multi-touch library of Processing. This control system can be easily replicated by any research group in the microrobotic or micromanipulation research areas.
3Results and discussion
3.1 Control of multiple OFB microrobots
3.2 Transportation by multiple OFB microrobots
An interactive control system for the OFB microrobot was demonstrated by performing parallel and cooperative assembly of microbeads. This system has the potential to be scaled up even further, increasing the throughput and utility of the OFB microrobotic system.
Although the interactive control system performed well in the experiments described here, the system can be further simplified. The need for the webcam and extra monitor can be eliminated by directly outputting a signal with the light pattern location information from the pattern generation computer to the scanning mirror control computer. A single computer can also accomplish the functionality of the two computers in the current setup, if the MATLAB script is configured to accept input from the touchscreen of its host computer. Moreover, the live camera view of the OFB workspace can also be displayed directly on the touchscreen to make it easier for the operator to co-locate the target objects and the microrobots, similar to the control systems in ,.
It can be approximated that increasing the number of microrobots will linearly reduce the completion time of microassembly tasks until a saturation point is reached. Beyond this saturation point, the microrobot density will limit the amount of parallel micromanipulation that can occur. The maximum number of 10-μm-diameter OFB microrobots that theoretically can be generated in the field of view used here (600 μm by 450 μm) is 2,700 microrobots. However, the current system does not approach that limit, so the linear relationship can be used to estimate the impact on task completion time.
The maximum number of microrobots is limited in the current control system by the ability of the human operator to track multiple objects. In these experiments, a maximum of ten microrobots can be controlled by a single operator. In order to scale this system to control a much larger number of microrobots in parallel, automated controls have to be developed. An automated control system can build upon algorithms developed for path planning and macroscale robotic swarm research . In addition to increasing the throughput of microassembly tasks, multiple microrobots can enable certain manipulation tasks, such as studying temporal dynamics of micro-object interactions. In this case, it may be necessary to have several objects moving at various velocities and trajectories relative to one another, which can be achieved by using multiple microrobots.
The micro-object used in the experiments above is a 20-μm polystyrene bead, which is near in size to many biological micro-objects, such as cells. Thus, the results here are expected to be transferrable to these biological micro-objects. As one example, patterning of single mammalian cells into different patterns can benefit research in tissue engineering . When manipulating biological materials, temperature is a concern, as objects such as cells can die at temperatures above the physiological temperature of 37°C. In this system, the maximum temperature is localized to the very center of the laser spot and quickly decreases to a temperature that is safe for cells: the temperature is less than 30.5°C at a distance of 3.5 μm from the center of the laser spot . As the bubble radii in these experiments are approximately 5 μm, this ensures that cells are manipulated at a safe temperature.
This project was supported in part by grant number 1R01EB016458 from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as part of the NSF/NASA/NIH/USDA National Robotics Initiative. These contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.
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