Sarah Perry of our Chemical Engineering Department is working with a colleague at the University of Illinois to create new bioinspired materials using electrostatic charge to direct the self-assembly process of long molecules. The research team, working with a class of polymers called coacervates, found they could be modified by changing the sequence of charges along the polymer chain. Coacervates are commonly used in food products and cosmetics. The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications. See media coverage: Phys.org, Nanowerk, Electronics 360, Nanotechnology Now, Global News Connect.
Perry and Charles Sing, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, collaborated on the research. They say that long chain molecules called polymers are ubiquitous in biology where the precise sequence of chemical building blocks in the chain, known as monomers, encodes the structure and function of life. Perry and Sing are looking for ways to use this kind of chemical patterning to design new synthetic materials.
Perry says, “The idea is to use patterns of chemistry to help design materials, the same way that nature uses amino acids to create functional proteins. We focus on a class of charged polymer solutions, known as complex coacervates, which in water are known to separate like oil and water into a gel-like substance due to the attraction between opposite charges. We show how polymer sequence can be used to tune this separation process; this opens up new possible ways to design materials, where charge patterns are directly synthesized into a polymer to encode for specific properties.” (November 2017)