Designing Polymers with Novel Features

Chemical engineer seeks to develop and understand materials that behave in radically new ways.


MIT scientist Bradley Olsen, along with his colleagues, are exploring physical properties for designing polymers. The team involves 15 to 20 students, and the postdoc seeks after this methodology mostly in the field of protein-polymer science, a generally new teach that includes fusing proteins into polymer materials.

Scientists primarily developed early versions of a technique known as initiated chemical vapor. The technique allows researchers to use gases to form thin polymer coatings on a surface.

Scientists then started working on designing polymers known as block copolymers. These polymers are composed of alternating blocks of two different kinds of monomers. They then arranged these monomers in blocks, which gives the overall material special properties.

Scientists explained, “For example, the material may contain two monomers that would normally separate into layers, the way oil and water do. If those two chemically dissimilar molecules are bound together in a block copolymer, they can’t form separate layers.”

“Instead, block copolymers assemble themselves into special structures, such as spheres, cylinders, or sheets, that help to minimize the interactions between the two chemically different blocks. Such materials are now commonly used in many products, including elastomers, adhesives, and personal care products.”

Olsen considered how these sorts of polymers could be utilized to control the nanostructure of semiconducting polymers. He then worked on developing injectable hydrogels, potentially used for wound healing and stopping blood flow.

Scientists then block copolymers for a wide range of applications. In one research zone, he is now designing materials where one block is a polymer, and the other is a protein such as an enzyme or an antibody. These materials could then be formed into extremely sensitive biosensors.

Olsen said, “With this high-density array of proteins, you can potentially increase sensitivity by maybe a factor of 100 or 1,000, or even more.”

Scientists noted, “Protein-polymer hybrids also could be using new materials that mimic the properties of nylons or polyurethanes, which are petroleum-derived materials found in hard plastics, coatings, insulation, and many other products.”

Another application that involves blocking copolymers is detoxification. They used spherical ‘nanoreactors’ whose surfaces are coated with enzymes that could break down toxic chemicals from an oil spill.

He said, “The things we work on are selected because the type of polymer-protein chemistry has a potential competitive advantage, and we try to apply our designs in that area.”

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