Dynamic self-assembly of magnetized, millimetre-sized objects rotating at a liquid–air interface

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Spontaneous pattern formation by self-assembly is of long-standing1,2,3 and continuing interest4,5 not only for its aesthetic appeal6,7, but also for its fundamental8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18 and technological relevance19. So far, the study of self-organization processes has mainly focused on static structures, but dynamic systems20,21,22—those that develop order only when dissipating energy—are of particular interest for studying complex behaviour23,24. Here we describe the formation of dynamic patterns of millimetre-sized magnetic disks at a liquid–air interface, subject to a magnetic field produced by a rotating permanent magnet. The disks spin around their axes with angular frequency equal to that of the magnet, and are attracted towards its axis of rotation while repelling each other. This repulsive hydrodynamic interaction is due to fluid motion associated with spinning; the interplay between attractive and repulsive interactions leads to the formation of patterns exhibiting various types of ordering, some of which are entirely new. This versatile system should lead to a better understanding of dynamic self-assembly, while providing a test-bed for stability theories of interacting point vortices25,26,27,28 and vortex patches29.

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Figure 1: Experimental set-up and magnetic force profiles.
Figure 2: Dynamic patterns formed by various numbers (n) of disks rotating at the ethylene glycol/water–air interface.
Figure 3: Illustrations of various effects controlling the dimensions and the stability of patterns.
Figure 4: Various phenomena observed in systems of magnetized rotating disks.


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This work was supported by DARPA and NSF.

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Correspondence to George M. Whitesides.

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Grzybowski, B., Stone, H. & Whitesides, G. Dynamic self-assembly of magnetized, millimetre-sized objects rotating at a liquid–air interface. Nature 405, 1033–1036 (2000) doi:10.1038/35016528

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