To bring a constant supply of fresh water into their massive cities, the Romans built countless kilometres of gravity-powered aqueducts, all at a tremendous expense. But even the massive pumping stations we rely on now might one day be obsolete as scientists work on perfecting liquids that can move all by themselves.
In a new research article titled Transition from turbulent to coherent flows in confined three-dimensional active fluids, scientists at Brandeis University's Materials Research Science and Engineering Center detail how they were able to create what is described as a new class of materials by copying the biological processes that allow cells to adapt to different environments.
Cells are made up of tiny cylindrical tubes called "microtubules" that function as basic building blocks, bending, stretching, growing and shrinking to modify their structure. The authors of the paper extracted microtubules from a cow's brain and added them to a liquid solution mixed with two other molecules commonly found in cells: Kinesin, which can travel along the outside of those microtubules, and adenosine triphosphate, which provides power.
As the microtubules line up alongside each other, the kinesin molecules connect pairs of them together, like wooden railway ties between a set of tracks. The kinesin molecules then start moving, sliding the microtubules until the structure breaks apart. That process happens again and again, creating swirling patterns in the fluid that the researchers were eventually able to orient in the same direction, moving the liquid in a specific direction.
There's still a lot of refinement needed before you can crack open a bottle of Coke and have the sugar water just automatically march down your throat, but the scientists envision their groundbreaking research being more useful in specific applications where the cost of moving liquids — both in terms of money and energy-usage — makes it otherwise prohibitive.
Liquid cooling systems that increase a computer's capabilities by keeping its processor cool require a motorised pump to keep the coolant flowing. That's fine for a device that's always plugged in, but what about the computer that lives in your pocket? This research could allow smartphones to have their own liquid cooling systems that vastly boost processing power without draining batteries.
And concerns about oil pipelines aside, the new material could make it easier and cheaper to pump oil from its source to a processing plant, minimising the expensive infrastructure required to keep it moving over such long distances.