Design of 2D and 3D micropatterned materials is highly important for printing technology, microfluidics, microanalytics, information storage, microelectronics and biotechnology. Biotechnology deserves particular interest among the diversity of possible applications because its opens perspectives for regeneration of tissues and organs that can considerably improve our life. In fact, biotechnology is in constant need for development of microstructured materials with controlled architecture. Such materials can serve either as scaffolds or as microanalytical platforms, where cells are able to self-organize in a programmed manner. Microstructured materials, for example, allow in vitro investigation of complex cell-cell interactions, interactions between cells and engineered materials. With the help of patterned surfaces it was demonstrated that cell adhesion and viability as well as differentiation of stem cells1 depend of on the character of nano- and micro- structures 2 as well as their size.
There are number of methods based on optical lithography, atomic force microscopy, printing techniques, chemical vapor deposition, which have been developed and successfully applied for 2D patterning. While each of these methods provides particular advantages, a general trade-off between spatial resolution, throughput, “biocompatibility of method” and usability of fabricated patterned surfaces exists. For example, AFM-based techniques allow very high nanometer resolution and can be used to place small numbers of functional proteins with nanometer lateral resolution, but are limited to low writing speeds and small pattern sizes. Albeit, the resolution of photolithography is lower, while it is much faster and cheaper.
Therefore, it is highly desirable to develop methods for high-resolution patterning at reasonably low cost and high throughput. Although many approaches to fabricate sophisticated surface patterns exist, they are almost entirely limited to producing fixed patterns that cannot be intentionally modified or switched on the fly in physiologic environment. This limits the usability of a patterned surface to a single specific application and new microstructures have to be fabricated for new applications. Therefore, it is desirable to develop methods for design of switchable and rewritable patterns. Next, the high-energy of the ultraviolet radiation, which is typically used for photolithography, can be harmful for biological species. It is also highly important to develop an approach for photopatterning where visible light is used instead of UV light. Therefore, it is very important for biotechnological applications to achieve good resolution at low costs, create surface with switchable and reconfigurable patterns, perform patterning in mild physiologic conditions and avoid use of harmful UV light.
3D patterning is experimentally more complicated than 2D one and the applicability of available techniques is substantially limited. For example, interference photolithography allows fabrication of 3D structures with limited thickness. Two-photon photolithography, which allows nanoscale resolution, is very slow and highly expensive. Assembling of 3D structures by stacking of 2D ones is time consuming and does not allow fabrication of fine hollow structures. At the same time, nature offers an enormous arsenal of ideas for the design of novel materials with superior properties. In particular, self-assembly and self-organization being the driving principles of structure formation in nature attract significant interest as promising concepts for the design of intelligent materials 3. Self-folding films are the examples of biomimetic materials4. Such films mimic movement mechanisms of plants 5-7 and are able to self-organize and form complex 3D structures. The self-folding films consist of two materials with different properties. At least one of these materials, active one, can change its volume. Because of non-equal expansion of the materials, the self-folding films are able to form a tubes, capsules or more complex structure. Similar to origami, the self-folding films provide unique possibilities for the straightforward fabrication of highly complex 3D micro-structures with patterned inner and outer walls that cannot be achieved using other currently available technologies. The self-folded micro-objects can be assembled into sophisticated, hierarchically-organized 3D super-constructs with structural anisotropy and highly complex surface patterns.
Till now most of the research in the field of self-folding films was focused on inorganic materials. Due to their rigidity, limited biocompatibility and non-biodegradability, application of inorganic self-folding materials for biomedical purposes is limited. Polymers are more suitable for these purposes. There are many factors, which make polymer-based self-folding films particularly attractive. There is a variety of polymers sensitive to different stimuli that allows design of self-folding films, which are able to fold in response to various external signals. There are many polymers changing their properties in physiological ranges of pH and temperature as well as polymers sensitive to biochemical processes. There is a variety of biocompatible and biodegradable polymers. These properties make self-folding polymer highly attractive for biological applications. Polymers undergo considerable and reversible changes of volume that allows design of systems with reversible folding. Fabrication of 3D structures with the size ranging from hundreds of nanometers to centimeters is possible. In spite of their attractive properties, the polymer-based systems remained almost out of focus – ca 15 papers including own ones were published on this topic (see own review 8, state October 2011).
Thereby the development of biomimetic materials based on self-folding polymer films is highly desired and can open new horizons for the design of unique 3D materials with advanced properties for lab-on-chip applications, smart materials for everyday life and regenerative medicine.