Aug. 29, 1997 ITHACA, N.Y. -- Having mastered the world of simple polymers, materials engineers will now turn their attention toward complex, "self-organizing" polymers. And this will have a profound effect on our lives -- perhaps with the potential of keeping airplane wings free of ice, according to a Cornell scientist in the latest edition of the journal Science (Aug. 29, 1997).
"This is the beginning of a new age in polymer research," said Christopher K. Ober, associate professor of materials science and engineering in the College of Engineering, Cornell University. "Right now, we use simple polymers like plastic in our everyday life; it's nothing special anymore. But with new, complex polymers, we could have materials where, for example, the surfaces may be designed to be markedly different from the polymer interior. Another example is a super-strong polymer with a water-repellent surface that could be used for an airplane wing that doesn't ice up. And we're taking the first steps into that new age."
Ober says that in the new age of complex, self-organizing polymers made by borrowing the self-processing behavior and complex functions of natural polymers, different types of products are beginning to emerge. Complex polymers are now seen as useful for films and surfaces, replete with multiple, self-growing layers, each with different functions. He adds that through spontaneously grown cylinders within a polymer structure, technology could use such cylinders for molecular-scale wires -- wires as small as 100 angstroms in diameter. "We can do this by controlling the molecular geometry of the polymer," he said. "With these new types of polymers, we are beginning to build in the same complexity as biological systems."
Murugappan Muthukumar of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Edwin L. Thomas of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Ober published the invited article in Science, called "Competing Molecular Interactions and the Formation of Ordered Structures on Different Length Scales in Self-Organizing Polymeric Materials." This article is among six in a special section on microstructural engineering of materials.
Funding for this research into complex polymers has been provided by the Office of Naval Research Laboratory, the Air Force Office of Sponsored Research and the National Science Foundation. The research was carried out by Jianguo Wang, Cornell postdoctorate associate in materials science and engineering, and Guoping Mao, Cornell senior researcher in materials science and engineering.
Sophisticated use of self-organizing materials, which include liquid crystal, block coploymers, hydrogen-bonded complexes and many natural polymers, may hold the key to developing new structures and devices in many advanced technological industries. Now, synthetic structures are designed with only one structure forming process in mind, Ober said. With complex, self-organizing polymers, molecular-scaled, multilayered devices can be built with each layer -- for example on a film -- for a purpose.
"Imagine growing different layers for different functions," said Ober. "This has possible applications for biotechnology, sensor development, even smart surfaces. An example where complex polymers could be used would be sensors made using this technology, where we might soon be able to monitor blood properties or other biological functions. Some day it might be possible to produce such microelectronics sensors directly from a complex polymer in a single processing step."
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