Bipolar electrochemistry, a phenomenon which generates an asymmetric reactivity onthe surface of conductive objects in a wireless manner, is an important concept for many purposes, from analysis to materials science as well as for the generation of motion. Chemists have known the basic concept for a long time, but it has recently attracted additional attention, especially in the context of micro- and nanoscience. In this Account, we introduce the fundamentals of bipolar electrochemistry and illustrate its recent applications, with a particular focus on the fields of materials science and dynamic systems.
Janus particles, named after the Roman god depicted with two faces, are currently in the heart of many original investigations. These objects exhibit different physicochemical properties on two opposite sides. This makes them a unique class of materials, showing interesting features. They have received increasing attention from the materials science community, since they can be used for a large variety of applications, ranging from sensing to photosplitting of water. So far the great majority of methods developed for the generation of Janus particles breaks the symmetry by using interfaces or surfaces. The consequence is often a low time-space yield, which limits their large scale production. In this context, chemists have successfully used bipolar electrodeposition to break the symmetry. This provides a single-step technique for the bulk production of Janus particles with a high control over the deposit structure and morphology, as well as a significantly improved yield. In this context, researchers have used the bipolar electrodeposition of molecular layers, metals, semiconductors, and insulators at one or both reactive poles of bipolar electrodes to generate a wide range of Janus particles with different size, composition and shape.
In using bipolar electrochemistry as a driving force for generating motion, its intrinsic asymmetric reactivity is again the crucial aspect, as there is no directed motion without symmetry breaking. Controlling the motion of objects at the micro- and nanoscale is of primary importance for many potential applications, ranging from medical diagnosis to nanosurgery, and has generated huge interest in the scientific community in recent years. Several original approaches to design micro- and nanomotors have been explored, with propulsion strategies based on chemical fuelling or on external fields. The first strategy is using the asymmetric particles generated by bipolar electrodeposition and employing them directly as micromotors. We have demonstrated this by using the catalytic and magnetic properties of Janus objects. The second strategy is utilizing bipolar electrochemistry as a direct trigger of motion of isotropic particles. We developed mechanisms based on a simultaneous dissolution and deposition, or on a localized asymmetric production of bubbles. We then used these for the translation, the rotation and the levitation of conducting objects. These examples give insight into two interesting fields of applications of the concept of bipolar electrochemistry, and open perspectives for future developments in materials science and for generating motion at different scales.