Imagine your television or computer screen coming from a container as something to be applied to a flat surface like a wall—or, screens so flexible that they can be rolled up and put in a pocket.
Those futuristic screens are closer to reality. John Protasiewicz, Case Western Reserve University professor of chemistry, plans to use funding from a special two-year, unsolicited grant for creativity from the National Science Foundation to prepare new conjugated polymers that feature novel chemical building blocks and inorganic elements. Such special plastics have potential uses in understanding how these new display devices work, and could lead to improvements in plastic display technologies.
Protasiewicz is among only a few chemists in the country this year to be singled out with a special creativity grant that acts as an extension of prior NSF-funded projects that have shown promise. According to the NSF, the creativity grants “offer the most creative investigators an extended opportunity to attack adventurous, ‘high risk’ opportunities in the same general research area.”
The Case chemist is the only one in his department known to have received this special NSF funding of $300,000. He learned of the award by e-mail while on sabbatical at Oxford University. Since he had not previously heard of creativity awards, he thought it was too good to be true and might be a prank, he quickly called the NSF program officer to find out what the “joke” was about.
It turned out indeed to be a “Christmas in July” surprise for Protasiewicz, who will build on his prior research in designing new forms of polymers containing inorganic elements. These plastics or polymers are very specialized and differ from the Styrofoam in disposable cups or car bumpers.
These new materials have been engineered to flavor them with other elements from the periodic table, especially phosphorus, an element that shares many properties with carbon— the main backbone element in most all plastics.
“We are looking at these emerging commercial materials as inspiration for creating polymers that mimic these materials in form, but differ mainly in the substitution of key carbon atoms by other elements,” said Protasiewicz.
These new polymers presented challenges of stabilizing the reactive sections of the monomers, but Protasiewicz added that “this is where our ability to do molecular design or architecture comes in handy.”
Protasiewicz’s past research has led to discoveries on how to build the shield for the polymers to protect against reactions with the environment while designing what chemists call the “pi-ways” or the double bonds in the chain of chemical molecules that create a pathway or flow for electrons through these materials. These special pi-ways are needed to produce the light-emitting effects in the new field of organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) based on conjugated polymers.
OLED—because of their low cost to produce as well as the flexibility of the materials—are expected to eventually replace the more rigid liquid crystal displays (LCD) and cathode ray tubes now widely used in electronics, said Protasiewicz.
“We can envision all kinds of fun things with future polymers like a screen that can be painted on a wall,” said Protasiewicz.
He elaborated on the science of OLED. “These devices operate by putting basically two electrodes on the material and then charging it. Light is given off the material to make the display device.”
The new materials can produce photovoltaic properties, too, by shining a light on them, which excites the electrons and causes them to move around and emit light.
During the course of the search for the new materials, Protasiewicz said, “We had to develop some new synthetic chemistry to learn how to put together these units.”
Overall he said the goal has been to make new building blocks which have all the “magic” properties to (a) stabilize introduction of these exotic elements that we are putting into the polymers so that (b) the specialized monomers in the plastics can be connected or “stitched” together by appropriate synthetic chemistry to make new materials.”
“Our materials are exciting because they offer new insights into how these other materials might work by reengineering the core sequence,” said Protasiewicz.
To arrive at where the Case chemist and his research team is at, he had to go through a learning period of discovery and find ways to overcome difficulties with the first generation of these materials and their limited utilities,” he said.
“Now the door is wide open for us, and we can have a lot of fun in the chemistry playground with these polymers,” said Protasiewicz.
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