Self-propelled droplets for extracting rare-earth metal ions†
We have developed self-propelled droplets having the abilities to detect a chemical gradient, to move toward a higher concentration of a specific metal ion (particularly the dysprosium ion), and to extract it. Such abilities rely on the high surface activity of di(2-ethylhexyl) phosphoric acid (DEHPA) in response to pH and the affinity of DEHPA for the dysprosium ion. We used two external stimuli as chemical signals to control droplet motion: a pH signal to induce motility and metal ions to induce directional sensing. The oil droplets loaded with DEHPA spontaneously move around beyond the threshold of pH even in a homogeneous pH field. In the presence of a gel block containing metal ions, the droplets show directional sensing and their motility is biased toward higher concentrations. The metal ions investigated can be arranged in decreasing order of directional sensing as Dy3+ ≫ Nd3+ > Y3+ > Gd3+. Furthermore, the analysis of components by using an atomic absorption spectrophotometer reveals that the metal ions can be extracted from the environmental media to the interiors of the droplets. This system may offer alternative self-propelled nano/microscale machines to bubble thrust engines powered by asymmetrical catalysts.