The group’s research covers different theoretical aspects of so-called soft matter. According to Wikipedia, soft matter is “a subfield of condensed matter comprising a variety of physical systems that are deformed or structurally altered by thermal or mechanical stress of the magnitude of thermal fluctuations”. Being a truly interdisciplinary field in the crossroads between physics, chemistry and biology, soft matter science has impacts on such diverse fields as medicine, microbiology, food technology, and materials design. The set of methods employed by the group are mainly computational in nature, but much of the science is done in close collaboration with both experimental soft matter scientists and statistical physicists. Below are brief descriptions of the main current research interests of the group.

Research funding from the following organizations is kindly acknowledged


Collective behaviour of swimming microorganisms

Collaborators: Joost de Graaf (Edinburgh), Davide Marenduzzo (Edinburgh), Alexander Morozov (Edinburgh), Cesare Nardini (Cambridge), Rupert Nash (Edinburgh)

Many microorganisms, such as bacteria, algae and protozoa, live in aqueous environments, and thus have the need to actively self-propel (swim) through fluids. Depending on the details of their propulsion mechanism, each microorganism thus creates a fluid flow around it, which in turn affects both other swimmers as well as non-swimming (passive) particles in the solution. This “stirring” on the microscale has been shown to dramatically increase the mixing of passive particles, such as nutrients, compared to the predicted diffusivity stemming from pure thermal agitation. In addition, for rear-actuated microswimmers (so-called “pushers”) such as E. coli at high densities, a hydrodynamic instability occurs, leading to chaotic, collective motion over very large distances, so-called bacterial turbulence. In this project, we aim to understand these two collective phenomena through large-scale lattice Boltzmann simulations of microswimmers together with approaches from statistical physics.

Left: Schematic picture of a pusher, such as E. coli, and a puller, such as Chlamydomonas. The red arrows indicate the force coming from the self propulsion and the counterforce from fluid friction. Center-left: Movie of a simulated pusher suspension undergoing a transition to bacterial turbulence. Center-right: Fluid flow set up by a single puller swimmer in a spherical cavity. Right: Fluid velocity field in microswimmer suspensions below (left) and above (right) the transition to bacterial turbulence.

Physics of active Brownian particles

Collaborators: Mike Cates (Cambridge), Alexandre Solon (MIT), Julien Tailleur (Paris), Raphael Wittkowski (Münster)

In this project, we study a minimal model of so-called active matter, which denotes materials whose microscopic components are driven out of thermodynamic equilibrium. In particular, we consider materials composed of self-propelled particles, which include both synthetic (“catalytic microswimmers”) and biological (swimming bacteria and algae) examples. As a minimal model for active matter, we study so-called active Brownian particles (ABPs), which are self-propelled spherical particles that interact through a short-range excluded-volume interaction. In spite of being a very simplified model of active matter, ABPs have been shown to exhibit many intriguing features, including the ability to phase-separate into dense and dilute phases even in the absence of any attractive interparticle interactions, so-called motility-induced phase separation (MIPS). Using  large-scale Brownian dynamics simulations together with accurate theoretical approaches from statistical physics, we aim to build a quantitative understanding of the non-equilibrium “thermodynamics” governing MIPS. In addition to MIPS, we study how active forces (self-propulsion) can be used to build new strategies for self-assembly of colloidal particles. These strategies using active particles for the well-controlled self-assembly of passive (non-swimming) colloids, and the use of light to spatially control the swim-speed of active particles in order to achieve the desired structures.


Left: A self-assembled “active ratchet” built from light-controlled active particles [Link]. Center-left and center-right: Active Brownian particles undergoing motility-induced phase separation into dense (yellow/red) and dilute (purple/blue) phases in 2 and 3 dimensions, respectively [Link]. Right: A “shock-wave” created by a collection of active particles surrounding a circular arrangement of non-swimming (passive) particles [Link].

Self-assembly of complex colloids

Collaborators: Arash Azari, Jérôme Crassous, Jasper Immink, Erik Maris, Peter Schurtenberger

Colloidal particles with tunable interactions hold great potential for controlled self-assembly of advanced materials. In this project, we study two such advanced colloidal systems, in close collaboration between experiments and simulation. In the first, we study how polarizable (spherical and ellipsoidal) colloids in external electric fields self-assemble into strings, sheets and tubes due to their anisotropic electrostatic interactions. In the second project, we consider self-assembly processes in binary mixtures of thermoresponsive microgel particles. These ultra-soft colloidal particles possess the ability to expand or collapse upon changing the temperature, leading to interesting possibilities of directed self-assembly through external temperature control.


Left: Model of a polarizable ellipsoidal colloid in an electric field. The charge distribution is composed of two point charges +q and -q, resulting in the electrostatic potential shown by the isopotential lines. Center and right: At high densities and electric field, the ellipsoids self-assemble into complex sheet and tube structures, as seen from the top (center) and from the side (right) with respect to the field direction [Link].