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Award Status: Active
  • Institution: President and Fellows of Harvard College (Harvard Medical School), Boston, MA
  • DUNS: 047006379
  • Most Recent Award Date: 03/08/2022
  • Number of Support Periods: 13
  • PM: Gimm, Aura
  • Current Budget Period: 05/15/2022 - 05/14/2023
  • Current Project Period: 05/15/2020 - 05/14/2023
  • PI: Aizenberg, Joanna
  • Supplement Budget Period: N/A

Public Abstract


                                    Biomimetic Self-Growing Modular Materials with Encoded Morphologies and Deformabilities

                                                          J. Aizenberg, Harvard University (Principal Investigator)

                                                          A. Balazs, University of Pittsburgh (Co-Investigator)

Living organisms have the ability to grow by taking in nutrients and thus, continue to increase in size and change shape. While various methods have been developed to create new stimuli-responsive polymeric materials that can swell, change geometry or physical properties, these materials ultimately return to their initial size and shape. The development of novel materials that can be programmed to expand on-demand to larger sizes and various actuatable and morphing shapes would transform manufacturing processes, providing new methods that capitalize on the remarkable growth abilities of living organisms.

Inspired by growth in biological systems, we will design a new type of growing synthetic polymer material that encompasses “living” chain ends and can continually incorporate nutrient, i.e., monomer and cross-linker. The interactions between the reactive chain ends and “nutrients” enable the material to either grow in a controllable isotropic or anisotropic manner into programmable shapes and sizes, or self-destruct. Moreover, we propose to incorporate modular, environment-responsive units into the network of the growing polymeric materials. The objectives of these studies are well aligned with the mission of the Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program: 1) to support fundamental research to understand, predict, and control matter and energy to provide the foundations for new energy technologies and 2) advance fundamental experimental and theoretical research to provide the knowledge base for the discovery and design of new materials with novel structures, functions, and properties.

In order to carry out such fundamental studies, we will take advantage of the extensive expertise of Aizenberg (Harvard University) in the development of new adaptive materials coupled with computational models devised by Balazs (University of Pittsburgh) and supported by advanced materials characterization capabilities available at the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Together we will pursue the following research objectives:

- We will develop synthetic routes to a new family of “self-growing” polymers that permit simultaneous and unprecedented levels of control over the mechanical properties, size and shape of the growing sample;

- We will build a theoretical model that captures key features of the growth modes observed experimentally and predicts the effects of varying key experimental parameters;

- We will design and introduce into our system, in a modular fashion, various components that respond to environmental stimuli, thus endowing the resulting materials with a variety of energy transduction modalities, encoded morphologies and deformabilities, as well as responsiveness to temperature and light;

-  We will close the loop by further developing our computational modeling tools, in order to be able to predict the behavior of environment-responsive growing polymers to external stimuli and thereby guide the synthetic effort along fruitful paths, not yet explored experimentally.

This highly integrated fundamental research program will provide much-needed insight into physicochemical factors and energy-transduction mechanisms that control the behavior of new-generation active and adaptive materials systems. It will also open up applications in the areas of programmable morphing of life-like materials, capable of both growth and self-destruction, self-regulated light–material interactions, as well as microfabrication, advanced additive manufacturing, and soft robotics.

The proposed research encompasses several innovative concepts that can lead to the emergence of a new class of bioinspired materials systems, which mimic organisms’ ability to absorb nutrients and grow into predetermined shapes, to respond to environmental stimuli, such as temperature and light, either in an encoded or self-regulation mode.  The modeling and simulation approaches that we will develop will both capture the essential features of the experimentally created systems and motivate synthesis and characterization of new materials that will permit multiple modes of actuation necessary for executing complicated dynamic actions.  This vital new area of research spans many disciplines that are of fundamental importance for the DoE and energy technologies. An especially unique aspect of this work is its modularity: the systems we will develop provide a toolbox for manipulating material’s growth and decomposition, its morphology and deformability modes, and responsiveness to external stimuli.  It will expand the boundaries of the field of adaptive and responsive energy-transducing smart materials into the yet unexplored realm of polymeric materials systems capable of either growth into desired sizes and shapes or on-demand self-destruction.

This research program is well aligned with the grand challenges and the mission of the Biomolecular Materials Division of DOE BES because we will be performing “fundamental research in the discovery, design and synthesis of functional materials and complex structures, and materials aspects of energy conversion processes based on principles and concepts of biology”.  We fully expect that the development and study of the proposed complex, modular bioinspired systems will provide the knowledge base for discovering, designing, and synthesizing unconventional material systems “with totally new properties for next-generation energy technologies”.


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