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Frontiers in
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January 2014

Assembling Matter with a Magnet

Scientists use a magnetic field to make complex three-dimensional structures of non-magnetic materials

Laila Jaber-Ansari

A completely self-assembled complex domed structure of non-magnetic particles, inspired by the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey (center), achieved by using removable magnetic molds underneath the structure. False color added to scanning electron micrograph.

You have probably seen magnetic objects such as iron filings being moved around with a magnet. But can we manipulate non-magnetic objects with a magnet? The answer is "yes!", if we disperse them in a paramagnetic fluid.

Bartosz Grzybowski, director of the Non-equilibrium Energy Research Center (NERC) explains a paramagnetic fluid with a simple example. "Imagine holding a magnet close to a ping pong ball. Nothing will happen. Similarly, if you hold the magnet near a glass full of water with some salt added, such as magnesium chloride, nothing will happen. But, if you place the ping pong ball inside the glass of water and salt, and then hold the magnet close to it, the ball will start moving in the water."

Grzybowski and his team of scientists used this phenomenon to precisely assemble up to one hundred million magnetic and non-magnetic particles into unique structures. Their research, published in Nature, can be used on a wide range of materials and arrange small molecules, particles, and even living bacteria.

"Positioning of biological matter using a magnetic field is quite unprecedented, resulting in numerous biological applications," said Grzybowski. Ahmet Demirörs, the lead author of this work, explains that the assembly depends on the difference in the magnetic susceptibilities of the particles that are dispersed in solution and the dispersing medium or solution. Magnetic susceptibility indicates the degree of the magnetization of a material in response to an applied magnetic field. By adjusting the magnetic susceptibility contrast between the particles and the solution, the effect of the magnetic field on the particles can be tuned. Combining that with patterning of the magnetic field in desired shapes and length scales based on the size of the particles, the authors successfully constructed intricate two- and three-dimensional (3D) structures.

For example, using a nickel grid with controlled thickness and width to tune the magnetic field, they assembled silica particles (about five times smaller than red blood cells) into 3D shapes inspired by Istanbul's Blue Mosque. The strength of the field felt by the particles depends on the arrangement of the nickel grid. The field itself holds the particles in position, acting as a virtual magnetic mold. By changing the shape and positioning of the grid, the team was able to control the height and layout of the arcs. To prevent the assemblies from falling apart after the magnet was removed, chemical compounds were added to bond and fix the structure to the substrate and each other.

Demirörs and coworkers have also shown that their process can be used to place live bacteria in defined locations on the substrate. Furthermore, because dead bacteria tend to take up ions from the solution resulting in a change of their magnetic properties, they can be separated from live bacteria via this technique!

This idea of using magnetic molds to assemble particles has opened a whole new field of research in Grzybowski's laboratory at NERC. His scientists are modifying the process to work with much smaller particles (nano-sized). They would also like to further develop this technique for positioning and manipulating living cells for biomedical applications in the near future. Aside from the potential biological applications, one can imagine using this technique to separate salts with different magnetic properties. This can lead to extraction and enriching elements such as uranium for potential energy applications. Furthermore, the flexibility and simplicity of the technique for making multi-component structures renders it suitable for potentially fabricating photonic and electronic devices that can be used for harvesting renewable energy.

More Information

Demirörs AF, PP Pillai, B Kowalczyk, and BA Grzybowski. 2013. "Colloidal Assembly Directed by Virtual Magnetic Moulds." Nature 503:99-103. DOI: 10.1038/nature12591


This work was supported by the Non-equilibrium Energy Research Center, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

About the author(s):

  • Laila Jaber-Ansari is a Ph.D. candidate in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University (Illinois), studying with Mark C. Hersam. She is a member of Center of Electrical Energy Storage (CEES). She received her M. Eng. in Materials Science and Engineering from Northeastern University (Massachusetts) in 2009. Her research interests include application of carbon-based nanomaterials in advancing energy storage devices.

New Virtual Molds Yield Complex Structures

Scientists precisely re-create Blue Mosque rooftop with non-magnetic nanoparticles and magnets

Scientists at the Non-equilibrium Energy Research Center created a completely self-assembled complex domed structure of non-magnetic particles, inspired by the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey (upper right), achieved by using removable magnetic molds under the structure.

While building solar energy collectors or other materials via colloid solutions with two or more particle types is possible, few schema turn out precise structures. These schemas only work in specific situations. Scientists designed a process that creates precise structures with different components. The process suspends the building blocks—silica particles, polymers, or live bacteria—in a slightly magnetic solution. Tiny magnetic fields create a virtual mold. The team assembled about 100 million non-magnetic and magnetic particles with micrometer precision. In one example, they re-created the iconic rooftop of Istanbul's Blue Mosque. The new method is of interest for synthesizing materials and separating salts. The Non-equilibrium Energy Research Center, led by Northwestern University, did the research.

More Information

Demirörs AF, PP Pillai, B Kowalczyk, and BA Grzybowski. 2013. "Colloidal Assembly Directed by Virtual Magnetic Moulds." Nature 503:99-103. DOI: 10.1038/nature12591

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.