Digital Magnetic Handshake Materials

Manufacturing of complex objects is the key engine of technological progress. Learning to build smart, digital, and mechanically functional objects at the microscale could be as revolutionary as human-scale manufacturing.

Itai Cohen and Paul McEuen, Physics, are developing a new way of meeting this challenging goal. Cohen and McEuen are combining two technologies: modern magnetic information storage, which can create tiny magnets in any pattern desired, and ultrathin flexible materials that can bend in response to tiny forces. Using design principles of colloidal systems, polymer physics, and molecular biology, Cohen and McEuen are building a new platform for self-assembly that uses panels with magnetic handshakes—microscopic patterns of magnetic dipoles—that enable panels to bond together using specific, intelligent interactions analogous to Watson-Crick base pairs in DNA.

Cohen and McEuen are integrating design, macroscale models, advanced simulations, and experiment to master the programmed self-assembly of these magnetic handshake materials. The magnetic information determines how multiple strands connect and form complex structures and micron-sized machines that can be controlled with external magnetic fields.

The researchers are taking advantage of the complementary binding principle behind current state-of-the-art three-dimensional DNA-based assembly and expanding the range of operating parameters such as temperature and solvent. The resulting structures will ultimately have fundamental impacts on micro-engineering, and can be fully integrated with other lithographic elements (such as electronics and optics). They will have broad applications in sensing, actuation, and microrobotics at the cellular scale.

Cornell Researchers

Funding Received

$1.1 Million spanning 4 years