UMass Amherst Takes Lead Role in New $7.5 Million Project to Develop Photomechanical Materials

Ryan Hayward
Ryan Hayward

AMHERST, Mass. – Materials that can change shape when exposed to light hold great promise for new applications such as smart building materials that harness solar energy and remotely-controlled micro-robots, but even the most advanced materials developed to date lag far behind systems that operate on traditional chemical or electrical power sources, says polymer scientist Ryan Hayward at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Now, the Office of Naval Research has awarded Hayward as lead investigator and a team of researchers at UMass Amherst, the University of California, Riverside, Stanford University, the University of California, Santa Barbara, Kent State University, and the California Institute of Technology a five-year, $7.5 million Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant to support fundamental research needed to design molecules and material architectures that efficiently convert photon energy into mechanical work.

He says, “Materials that convert light into motion, mechanical work, and changes in shape have long captured the imagination of scientists and engineers for their potential in devices powered by light and controlled by optical signals. However, the lack of fundamental understanding needed to realize these new and exciting light-powered materials has slowed progress. This new project is an exciting opportunity to bring together people with a wide variety of backgrounds and skills to really rethink how light-responsive materials are designed and fabricated.”

Michael Malone, UMass Amherst vice chancellor for research and engagement, says, “This research on photomechanical materials has great potential for innovation and impact and the collaboration is a key asset to realizing these.”

The project will merge theory, modeling and simulations with synthesis, processing and characterization of new materials and systems across length-scales ranging from single molecules to bulk materials. The researchers hope to ultimately develop working, light-driven devices.

Others on the team are chemists Christopher Bardeen of UC Riverside, Todd Martinez of Stanford, and Javier Read de Alaniz of UC Santa Barbara, physicist Peter Palffy-Muhoray of Kent State and mechanical engineer Kaushik Bhattacharya of CalTech.   

They plan to use quantum mechanical modeling as the basis for making new classes of light-responsive compounds on the molecular scale, which they will pair with new approaches to self-assembly and material architecture at a scale larger than molecular. Finally, they plan to end with characterizing systematic photo responses on the macroscale. The processes should provide “an integrated roadmap for the effective design of photomechanical materials,” they note.

Hayward and colleagues say they expect the fundamental insights they gain, plus access to improved material properties, will bring photomechanical materials to applications not only in smart buildings and remotely-controlled robots, but also self- regulating optical devices such as smart lenses or mirrors that adjust their own properties to maintain proper performance in spite of changing environmental conditions.