July 1, 1998 Bullet-proof cashmere? Well, maybe not. But Michigan Tech Associate Professor of chemical engineering Gerard Caneba's new polymer process has investors looking at building all kinds of new substances that tie together all kinds of contradictory properties.
Many common substances are already designed to do just that. Laundry detergents, for instance, are made of two kinds of molecules linked together, one that likes grease and one that is hydrophilic. Together, they override Nature, allowing oil and water to mix merrily in your wash cycle. However, putting long, contradictory molecules together is not as simple as assembling beads on a string. Typically, they are combined in a sort of chemical soup, piling up very quickly one upon the other to form long chains. However, when the reactive ends of two polymers bump up against each other, they fuse, halting the reaction. Researchers have wanted to create longer, more-refined polymers, but most mechanisms have been too costly or useful with only a few raw materials.
Caneba, drawing on a thermodynamic state common to polymers, has figured out a way to regulate how the molecular beads string up. Not only has he increased control over the length of the chain, he can also prevent the reactive ends from sticking together and halting growth. The process is called FRRPP, for free-radical retrograde-precipitation polymerization.
"Sometimes we just say 'furp,'" Caneba said.
This basic research is conjuring up an abundance of potential applications that Caneba can only guess at, and has attracted the attention of some major chemical companies, who are considering multi-million-dollar investments in product development and manufacturing. "The range of applications is mind-boggling," he said, implicating a bushel-basket of different product areas: adhesives, paints, diapers, sunscreen lotion, paper, textiles, electronics, automotive, building materials, etc.
"I just found a new set of applications relating to semiconductors, biotechnology, and medicine," Caneba added. "We could make very small plastic or rubber pieces, precisely controling their shapes and their surface functionality--for example, they could be acid or alkaline. And they could be so small that they could interact with single cells and viruses, or enzymes.
"We could make nanometer-sized nets with a variety of openings--if you want a little elephant to go through it, we could shape it like an elephant. We could make photoresists, which are used to make computer chips, with much smaller tolerances, about 10 nanometers. "
"It's a new concept," Caneba said. "We haven't even begun to see the end of it."
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