Voices4/StephanMatopeVanderwaals Kort nuusartikel Word count 270 Foto’s – van die foto’s op sy powerpoint Picking and placing without fingers Researchers who are developing micro-sized grippers to handle micro-materials have taken a page out of nature’s book to overcome many of the giant obstacles they face. Precision engineering with objects hardly visible to the human eye is one such challenge. “Manipulating the naturally occurring van der Waals forces between micro objects can make them much easier to handle,” is the solution offered by Mr Stephen Matope, who is busy with his PhD research in industrial engineering, Van der Waals forces are the sum of the attractive or repulsive forces between molecules or parts of the same molecule. It is the same principle that is in action when geckos effortlessly scale sheer surfaces. Attraction is clearly advantageous when trying to pick up a tiny object, but becomes a problem when it is time to release the piece. “When picking up a work piece the Van der Waals forces should be high, but when releasing the forces should be low”, Mr Matope explains. Van der Waals forces are affected by the shape, surface roughness and material type of the interacting objects. “By simply paying attention to the texture and shape of work surfaces and the microgripper you are using, you can greatly improve the effectiveness with which you handle micromaterial,” believes Mr Matope. The advantages of using van der Waals forces are that they are applicable to all materials, can work in a vacuum, can work in aqueous conditions, do not require an external energy source, and are suitable for sensitive microchip circuits. They also do not leave residual charges, stresses, strains or oxide layers on the interacting materials.