Physicists Alex Snezhko and Igor Aronson at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois have made an interesting discovery. They placed nickel particles in a beaker of liquid, and applied a magnet hooked up to an alternating current. This alternating current switches the magnetic field back and forth. At a certain frequency, the nickel particles grouped together and moved around in the liquid in a life-like manner similar to snakes.
The study of how these inorganic materials form shapes and move has many potential benefits, from studying how primordial soup first formed, to medical applications.
"You have a deliberately nonbiological system, but it's behaving a bit like a biological system," says Iain Couzin, who heads Princeton's Collective Animal Behaviour Laboratory. "I just like the way that it spans across biology and physics in quite a beautiful way."
And the research may one day have practical applications. Some day, the swimmers may be used to help scrub the surfaces of materials — or maybe they'll hook up one of the snakes to a cell and drag it around. Wai Kwok, the head of the superconductivity and magnetism group at Argonne, calls attaching magnetic particles to living cells "feasible."
"If you can do that, you can control an actual living organism," Kwok says.
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