A Method to Manipulate Surface Tension of a Liquid Metal via Surface Oxidation and Reduction

TitleA Method to Manipulate Surface Tension of a Liquid Metal via Surface Oxidation and Reduction
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsEaker, CB, Khan, RM, Dickey, MD
Date Published01/2016
KeywordsChemistry, EGain, electrocapillarity, electrorheology, Issue 107, liquid metal, Microfluidics, Oxidation, spreading

Controlling interfacial tension is an effective method for manipulating the shape, position, and flow of fluids at sub-millimeter length scales, where interfacial tension is a dominant force. A variety of methods exist for controlling the interfacial tension of aqueous and organic liquids on this scale; however, these techniques have limited utility for liquid metals due to their large interfacial tension.

Liquid metals can form soft, stretchable, and shape-reconfigurable components in electronic and electromagnetic devices. Although it is possible to manipulate these fluids via mechanical methods (e.g., pumping), electrical methods are easier to miniaturize, control, and implement. However, most electrical techniques have their own constraints: electrowetting-on-dielectric requires large (kV) potentials for modest actuation, electrocapillarity can affect relatively small changes in the interfacial tension, and continuous electrowetting is limited to plugs of the liquid metal in capillaries.

Here, we present a method for actuating gallium and gallium-based liquid metal alloys via an electrochemical surface reaction. Controlling the electrochemical potential on the surface of the liquid metal in electrolyte rapidly and reversibly changes the interfacial tension by over two orders of magnitude ( ̴500 mN/m to near zero). Furthermore, this method requires only a very modest potential (< 1 V) applied relative to a counter electrode. The resulting change in tension is due primarily to the electrochemical deposition of a surface oxide layer, which acts as a surfactant; removal of the oxide increases the interfacial tension, and vice versa. This technique can be applied in a wide variety of electrolytes and is independent of the substrate on which it rests.