Polymers are long molecules that make up the many kinds of coatings, fabrics, and plastics used in everyday life. Some polymers can be flexible and soft. Other polymers can be long and stiff. By combining stiff and flexible polymers in a single system formed on a surface—using careful temperature control and coating methods—it is possible to make nanoscale spiky brush-like surfaces.
Christopher Ober, Materials Science and Engineering, is working to better understand this surface formation process. Ober is making new combinations of soft and stiff polymers, using advanced tools to study their organization and employing computers to model the structure and predict their behavior.
This new way of making surfaces opens up many novel applications. For example, the surface mimics the protein spikes present on virus surfaces, used by nature to identify target cells, take part in the entry into the cell, and to prevent identification by antibodies. These materials can be used to study the behavior of cells including topics on how they work with immune system behavior.
Because the spikes are vertically aligned, they may also act as nanowires. So they can be used in energy production and storage systems such as solar cells and batteries. These spikes may be piezoelectric, meaning they could convert electrical energy to motion (or sound) and motion to electrical energy.