Todd Emrick, polymer science and engineering, with colleagues at three other universities, has been awarded a three-year, $1.8 million grant to support a multi-university Center for Chemo-mechanical Assembly from the National Science Foundation as part of its Center for Chemical Innovation program.
The science of the center is based on fluid flow and the use of flow fields to direct motion of objects such as particles and capsules. The investigators say, “Much as a river current carries a pebble, fluid flows can carry particulates such as nanoparticles and microcapsules. While mechanical pumps are conventionally used to drive fluid flow, chemical ‘pumps’ can also propel fluid by using chemical reaction networks to create gradients in chemical concentrations and fluid densities.”
Coming up with effective ways to regulate fluid movement at such small and confined scales is challenging, however.
Emrick says, “My group will synthesize new polymers and materials for encapsulation that are responsive to their solution environment and subject to participation in enzymatically or chemically driven flow fields. Making polymer particles and capsules that are reversibly ‘sticky’ will allow us to build structures in 2D and 3D by letting chemistry do the work of assembly rather than having to use laborious construction methods.”
Professor Anna Balazs at the University of Pittsburgh is the lead principal investigator of the award, which along with Emrick includes Ayusman Sen at Penn State and Howard Stone at Princeton. Approximately $450,000 per investigator will support research during the course of this Phase I award, after which they can compete for Phase II NSF-CCI funding of $4 million per year for five years, with another competitive renewal possible.
Bryan Coughlin, chair of polymer science and engineering, says, “It is exciting to see Emrick take his highly innovative research program further. I anticipate that there will be many insightful discoveries by Emrick and his students in collaboration with their external collaborators.”
The investigators say that possible practical applications of their work include creating stand-alone microfluidic devices that autonomously perform multi-stage chemical reactions and assays for portable biomedical applications, automated materials assembly in harsh environments, and small-scale factories that can operate autonomously to build microscale components for use in fine instrumentation and robotic systems.
The researchers will additionally enhance public appreciation about this area of chemistry by holding public outreach events including lectures, hands-on traveling exhibits, and museum and science center projects.