NSF grant supports research on assembly of complex hybrid nanomaterials

An old saying suggests that great things come in small packages, but when “small” means nanoscale, putting those packages together can be a challenge—particularly when they involve diverse components.

“The intimate combination of inorganic nanoparticles and organic polymers within nanoscale packages of controlled sizes and shapes presents challenges in terms of production, while also offering opportunities for unique material properties,” says the University of Delaware’s Arthi Jayaraman.

Funded by a four-year grant from the National Science Foundation, Jayaraman — along with UD’s Darrin Pochan, William Johnson from the University of Utah and Karen Wooley from Texas A&M — will address those challenges so that the potential of these materials can be realized in a broad range of applications.

The research is aimed at developing computational and experimental tools that will guide the discovery and manufacture of hybrid inorganic-organic nanostructured objects, or HIONs.

Pochan explains that new polymer nanomaterials are typically designed at the molecular level and then placed in solution to see how they behave.

“We’d like to bring a more predictive and less empirical approach to this process,” he says. “The computational tools that Arthi and Bill are bringing to this work will enable us to do that.”

According to Jayaraman, computer-based assembly of polymers is usually accomplished in a stationary manner, but in the proposed work these hybrid materials will be assembled using a more dynamic approach. Pochan and Jayaraman liken this sequential process to building a shopping cart at the grocery store, then filling it in a prescribed, ordered way — for example, meat, vegetables, dairy, baked goods — and finally unloading it in the reverse order.

“As the material is built, the molecules move along a surface and collect various particles in a sequential manner, introducing new chemistries along the way — for example, hydrophobic, hydrophilic, and charged, in that order,” Jayaraman says. “At the end, we have a new material with properties designed in layers, each layer intended for a specific role in the eventual application.”

These hybrid materials can interact with complex natural materials like soils and water, so one potential application is pollution remediation, as HIONS can be designed to collect pollutants left behind by processes like fracking that take place in porous rock.

“Our ultimate goal is to enable high-throughput, tunable manufacturing of complex HIONs that exhibit compositions, structures, morphologies and properties for diverse technological applications,” Jayaraman says. “We’ve already started to incorporate these concepts into our upper-level undergraduate and graduate-level polymer course in chemical engineering and materials science at UD.”

About the research and the team

The award, “Collaborative Research: Interface-promoted Assembly and Disassembly Processes for Rapid Manufacture and Transport of Complex Hybrid Nanomaterials” (No. 1629156), was granted through NSF’s Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future (DMREF) program, which supports interdisciplinary teams working toward the goal of accelerating materials discovery and development.

Arthi Jayaraman is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Delaware, and Darrin Pochan is a professor in UD’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Karen Wooley, principal investigator on the grant, is Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Texas A&M University.

William Johnson is a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Utah.

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