Self-regulated non-reciprocal motions in single-material microstructures


Living cilia stir, sweep and steer via swirling strokes of complex bending and twisting, paired with distinct reverse arcs. Efforts to mimic such dynamics synthetically rely on multimaterial designs but face limits to programming arbitrary motions or diverse behaviours in one structure. Here we show how diverse, complex, non-reciprocal, stroke-like trajectories emerge in a single-material system through self-regulation. When a micropost composed of photoresponsive liquid crystal elastomer with mesogens aligned oblique to the structure axis is exposed to a static light source, dynamic dances evolve as light initiates a travelling order-to-disorder transition front, transiently turning the structure into a complex evolving bimorph that twists and bends via multilevel opto-chemo-mechanical feedback. As captured by our theoretical model, the travelling front continuously reorients the molecular, geometric and illumination axes relative to each other, yielding pathways composed from series of twisting, bending, photophobic and phototropic motions. Guided by the model, here we choreograph a wide range of trajectories by tailoring parameters, including illumination angle, light intensity, molecular anisotropy, microstructure geometry, temperature and irradiation intervals and duration. We further show how this opto-chemo-mechanical self-regulation serves as a foundation for creating self-organizing deformation patterns in closely spaced microstructure arrays via light-mediated interpost communication, as well as complex motions of jointed microstructures, with broad implications for autonomous multimodal actuators in areas such as soft robotics, biomedical devices and energy transduction materials, and for fundamental understanding of self-regulated systems.