Electric powered microrotors roll and hover


The Quincke effect, i.e. the spontaneous spinning of a dielectric sphere in a uniform DC electric field, arises from particle electric polarization. Discovered over a century ago, it has had its fair share of research attention, nonetheless, it has recently started attracting increasing interest. Such research spark has been ignited by the recently reported Lorenz chaotic rotations. In addition, pairs of Quincke rotating spheres have been found to display intricate trajectories. Ideally, Quincke rotation in complex media is affected by the medium structure. In fact, Quincke rotors initially resting on a surface roll with steady velocity. In a uniform field, if an induced dipole is antiparallel to the applied field, a spontaneous symmetry breaking occurs in strong fields. The theoretical analysis of this instability for a sphere in an unbounded domain predicts that the dipole adopts a steady tilt angle relative to the applied field direction above a threshold electric field. The resulting electric torque drives rotation. Previous studies have reported that a sphere initially resting on the electrode rolls with steady velocity. Regardless, more research is necessitated to fully comprehend the dynamics of Quincke rollers.

Researchers at the Northwestern University: Gerardo Pradillo, Dr. Hamid Karani (postdoctoral fellow) and led by Professor Petia Vlahovska studied the effect of confinement on the Quincke rotor dynamics. Their work was motivated by the fact that in most experiments with Quincke rollers, the particles used are often sandwiched between electrodes and are rolling on the bottom surface. Their work is currently published in the research journal, Soft Matter.

Technically, their empirical setup was generally comprised of two indium-tin-oxide (ITO) coated glass slides separated by a Teflon tape of specific thickness. Owing to the fact that the Quincke effect is very sensitive to the suspending fluid conductivity, the researchers opted to control it by adding surfactant. To be specific, the conductivity of the suspending fluid was controlled by adding dioctyl sulfosuccinate sodium salt (AOT) to hexadecane.

The research team reported that the additive strongly influenced the Quincke dynamics and in addition to rolling, a new regime of hovering, where the sphere lifted off the bottom surface and spun in the space between the electrodes, was observed. The research trio also reported that the Quincke effect in confinement was very sensitive to the additive used to control the conductivity of the suspending oil. In other words, for their system of hexadecane with added AOT, moisture in the AOT dramatically changed the Quincke behavior.

In summary, the study by Professor Petia Vlahovska and her group experimentally investigated the Quincke effect in strong confinement with particle diameter to gap ratio d/h ranging between 0.17 and 0.83. Generally, they found out that in strong fields, the rotation becomes unsteady, with time-periodic or chaotic rate. Overall, their experimental results showed that the onset of Quincke rotation strongly depended on particle confinement and the threshold for rolling was higher compared to rotation in the hovering state. The newly-discovered hovering regime opens opportunities to “propel” freely suspended colloidal particles with shape anisotropy.

Electric powered microrotors roll and hover - Advances in Engineering
(left) Induced free charge distribution for a sphere with R/ S o 1.
(right) Above a critical field strength E 4 EQ steady rotation in the plane perpendicular to the electric field (X_E = 0) is induced by the misaligned induced dipole of the particle. (Credit Soft Matter, 2019,15, 6564)

About the author

Gerardo Pradillo received a Sc.B. in mechanical engineering from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He obtained his Sc.M. at Brown University and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in mechanical engineering at Northwestern University. His research focuses primarily on the electrohydrodynamics of active suspensions and fluid interfaces.

About the author

Hamid Karani received a PhD in geophysics and MS in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University. His research interests lie at the interface of transport phenomena in heterogeneous media and active matter physics.

About the author

Petia M. Vlahovska received a PhD in chemical engineering from Yale University (2003) and M.Sc. in chemistry from University of Sofia “St. Kliment Ohridski”, Bulgaria (1994). Before joining the faculty at Northwestern University in 2017, she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Membrane Biophysics Lab at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces (2005) and a faculty at Dartmouth College (2006-2010) and Brown University (2010-2017).

Her research interests are in fluid dynamics, membrane biophysics, and soft matter. Prof. Vlahovska is the recipient of NSF CAREER Award, the David Crighton Fellowship from DAMPT, University of Cambridge (UK), and Humboldt Research Fellowship (Germany). In 2019 she was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society.


G.E. Pradillo, H. Karani, P.M. Vlahovska. Quincke rotor dynamics in confinement rolling and hovering. Soft Matter, 2019, volume 15, page 6564.

Go To Soft Matter

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