ITHACA, N.Y. -- Having mastered the world of simple polymers, materialsengineers will now turn their attention toward complex, "self-organizing"polymers. And this will have a profound effect on our lives -- perhapswith the potential of keeping airplane wings free of ice, according to aCornell scientist in the latest edition of the journal Science (Aug. 29,1997).
"This is the beginning of a new age in polymer research," said ChristopherK. Ober, associate professor of materials science and engineering in theCollege of Engineering, Cornell University. "Right now, we use simplepolymers 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 polymerinterior. Another example is a super-strong polymer with a water-repellentsurface that could be used for an airplane wing that doesn't ice up. Andwe're taking the first steps into that new age."
Ober says that in the new age of complex, self-organizing polymers made byborrowing the self-processing behavior and complex functions of naturalpolymers, different types of products are beginning to emerge. Complexpolymers are now seen as useful for films and surfaces, replete withmultiple, self-growing layers, each with different functions. He adds thatthrough spontaneously grown cylinders within a polymer structure,technology could use such cylinders for molecular-scale wires -- wires assmall as 100 angstroms in diameter. "We can do this by controlling themolecular geometry of the polymer," he said. "With these new types ofpolymers, we are beginning to build in the same complexity as biologicalsystems."
Murugappan Muthukumar of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, EdwinL. Thomas of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Ober publishedthe invited article in Science, called "Competing Molecular Interactionsand the Formation of Ordered Structures on Different Length Scales inSelf-Organizing Polymeric Materials." This article is among six in aspecial section on microstructural engineering of materials.
Funding for this research into complex polymers has been provided by theOffice of Naval Research Laboratory, the Air Force Office of SponsoredResearch and the National Science Foundation. The research was carried outby Jianguo Wang, Cornell postdoctorate associate in materials science andengineering, and Guoping Mao, Cornell senior researcher in materialsscience and engineering.
Sophisticated use of self-organizing materials, which include liquidcrystal, block coploymers, hydrogen-bonded complexes and many naturalpolymers, may hold the key to developing new structures and devices in manyadvanced technological industries. Now, synthetic structures are designedwith only one structure forming process in mind, Ober said. With complex,self-organizing polymers, molecular-scaled, multilayered devices can bebuilt 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, evensmart surfaces. An example where complex polymers could be used would besensors made using this technology, where we might soon be able to monitorblood properties or other biological functions. Some day it might bepossible to produce such microelectronics sensors directly from a complexpolymer in a single processing step."
Materials provided by Cornell University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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