The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Perry and Santore Building a New Kind of Environmentally Friendly Polymer Material

coacervates graphic

Coacervates diagram

Inside UMass reports that two scientists at UMass Amherst, including Professor Sarah Perry of the Chemical Engineering Department, are building a new class of environmentally friendly polymer materials made from complex coacervates that contain solid nanoparticles. The scientists hope their research into these new complex coacervates will have a radical impact on applications ranging from polymer coatings to vaccine formulation.

See Inside UMass article: Scientists Make Polymers Containing Solid Nanoparticles.

Coacervates are complexes of oppositely charged polymers that have separated into two liquid phases due to electrostatic forces. The researchers, supported by a three-year, $357,694 grant from the National Science Foundation, will also uncover and chronicle the design rules for these materials creating a road map for further research in the field.

“Our goal of developing a robust and universal framework for designing coacervates containing particles ranging in size from single molecules to living cells represents a grand challenge in materials science,” says Perry. “The complexity of these systems is precisely why our kind of collaborative efforts are so critical.”

According to the article posted on Inside UMass, Perry and Maria M. Santore of the Polymer Science and Engineering Department say coacervates are well known to scientists. However, what is little understood is how extensively coacervates can be modified for new uses. The two researchers also say there are no systematic and comprehensive rules for building these materials, so they will create such “rules of thumb” for other researchers to follow.

Perry says coacervates have been around for decades, but there hasn’t been a concentrated effort to discover a wider range of applications. She says scientists tend to create these materials for a specific use but haven’t explored how complex or how sophisticated they can be.

“We expect the complexation of nanoparticles and microparticles with polymers will broaden the mechanisms involved in coacervate formation, enabling the creation of entirely new materials,” Santore says. “Particle-containing coacervates have the potential to radically advance a range of fields from coatings to vaccine formulation. We’re excited to learn the range of particles that can be incorporated in coacervates.”

Inside UMass explains that coacervates are commonly used in coatings, adhesives, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics. In food products they are used to encapsulate flavors and additives and as a way of controlling the “feel” of the product. Coacervates are also found in nature when underwater animals use them to make natural adhesives. (October 2018)