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Research on Polymers Points to Future of Region as Global Materials Science Hub

Mar 27, 2017
Health Science.
American materials science researcher Frank Bates is one of the world's leading experts in polymers, a common material with promising new health science applications. In last fall’s H.C. Ørsted Lecture at the Technical University of Denmark Bates highlighted the central role—past, present and future—that neutron scattering occupies in his work.
ABOVE: Frank Bates, Professor in Materials Science at the University of Minnesota and DTU's fall lecturer for the H.C. Ørsted Lecture series. PHOTO courtesy of DTU
Bates' H.C. Ørsted Lecture delivered October 13, 2016 at DTU. SOURCE: DTU
COPENHAGEN—To do great science, research collaboration is essential. It is the world’s research infrastructures, like Lund’s European Spallation Source (ESS) and it’s neighbor the MAX IV Laboratory, that will provide the basis for such collaboration going forward. Construction of the European Spallation Source is nearly one-third complete, and the first scientific data was recently recorded at the MAX IV synchrotron. 
 
Sure signs of the robust research ecosystem that will grow in the region over the next decade are emerging  [1]  [2]  [3]  [4]. Building on the Swedish and Danish university systems, strong national support, and predecessors like the Risø National Laboratory in Denmark, this future already has a strong foundation. Scientists are licking their chops at the prospect of one day using these world-leading machines to advance groundbreaking research into new materials.
 
Twice a year, ESS in-kind partner the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) invites distinguished foreign researchers to lecture on their work, research findings, and the prospects within their field for the H.C. Ørsted Lectures. The fall 2016 lecture was given by US researcher Frank Bates, Professor in Materials Science at the University of Minnesota. Bates has used neutron scattering facilities in the US and Europe throughout his career, and has a longstanding connection to DTU and Risø. He looks forward to bringing his groundbreaking polymer research to ESS.
 
Bates delivered his H.C. Ørsted Lecture on October 13, 2016. Below is an article on Bates’ research on polymers first published on DTU’s website on January 25. It is reposted here courtesy of DTU and the author, Morten Andersen.
 

The Polymer Revolution Has Just Begun

WEDNESDAY 25 JAN 17
By Morten Andersen
 
Rapid recovery following a heart attack. Chewing gum that can be easily removed from the pavement. Strong materials with soft surfaces. Meet one of the world's leading experts in polymers—materials with amazing properties.

As a chemical and materials engineer Frank Bates is always looking for practical solutions to societal problems, but another part of him desires to investigate the fundamental behaviour of matter. In polymers he found the perfect field for combining both approaches.
 
Polymers have already revolutionized our society, but according to Frank S. Bates, Professor at the University of Minnesota, USA, there is a lot more to come.
 
Frank Bates delivering his H.C. Ørsted Lecture last October. PHOTO courtesy of DTU
“Just to take an example, my group is currently involved in collaboration with cardiologists. Our joint research suggests that patients recovering from heart attacks do much better when treated with certain polymers.”
 
According to the studies, the polymers act as surfactants that promote cell recovery in the heart.
 
“In fact we do not fully understand the mechanism involved. Research on this is still ongoing. However, my point here is to show why polymers are so fascinating. It seems that a substance, which is sold in bulk quantities all over the world, with slight modifications can become a high value chemical.”
 
Materials with Magical Properties
Frank Bates’ name is mainly associated with the study of complex polymers. Different polymers can be joined within the same molecule. This is known as a co-polymer. The result can be a molecule with different chemical and/or different thermodynamic properties depending on which side it is approached from. For instance, it could be hydrophilic at one side and hydrophobic at the other; or it could be stiff and mechanically strong at one side, and soft at the other.
 
While co-polymers promise a range of applications where materials seem to have “magic” properties, Frank Bates sees an even greater challenge facing polymer science:
 
“We cannot ignore the fact that polymer materials pile up to form giant islands floating around in our oceans. We have to develop sustainable polymers.”
 
Replace Oil with Lactic Acid
From a chemist’s point of view this shouldn’t be too hard, he emphasizes:
 
“Rather than depending on hydrocarbon feedstocks as we do today, it is absolutely possible to extract our monomers from sugars, cellulose and other renewable resources. Further, it is possible to have these monomers joined in polymers for a given period of time – performing their job – after which they will degrade back into monomers, which will then degrade further into carbon dioxide and water. However, the big problem is that the hydrocarbon based polymers are just so cheap.”
 
Two hydrocarbon based polymers, polyethylene (PE), and polypropylene (PP), jointly account for 2/3 of the world’s polymer consumption, which totals 400 billion USD annually in value.
 
“For instance, lactic acid which can be derived from renewable feedstock is shown to be very promising as a bio-polymer resource. It is currently too costly, but we shouldn’t let that discourage us.”
 
Perhaps the biggest difference between hydrocarbon and biological feedstocks is that the latter contain oxygen.
 
Bates' research group can build polymers with different properties in the same molecule. For example, a substance can be water-repellent and -absorbent at the same time. IMAGE courtesy of DTU
 
“The presence of oxygen changes the thermodynamics significantly. Therefore, you can’t expect the same synthesis pathways to be efficient. However, I strongly believe that other pathways can be found where oxygen is not just less problematic, but directly helpful. The production of PE and PP has been optimized over more than 80 years, while research in bio-polymers has only taken place during the last decade. Thus we have every reason to expect costs to drop as more efficient processes are found. In my view this is imperative. You can’t force people to buy more expensive products only because they are better for the environment.”
 
Chewing Gum Led to New Knowledge
Frank Bates is directly engaged in this quest through his work with the Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota. Other discoveries from his group may take part as well.
 
“What we do is fundamental research. But I always tell my students that practical applications should be kept in mind. Actually, this goes both ways. New theory leads to new applications, but we also see that applications inspire new theory.”
 
A recent example is a joint industry project with Wrigley Chewing Gum.
 
“We wanted to see if we could create chewing gum which would not stick to sidewalks and similar surfaces after use, and would thus be much easier to remove.”
 
A consumer product has not yet been marketed, as the company lacks a clear incentive. It is not evident that consumers will prefer a more environmentally benign product. Still, from a scientific point of view the project was highly successful yielding four patents—and new insight.
 
More specifically, Frank Bates and his colleagues have found so called quasi-crystals in the polymers. These are self-organized supramolecular aggregates that exhibit both solid-like, crystalline properties and liquid-like amorphous properties.
 
“We were astonished by the X-ray pattern which we saw from our diblock copolymer melt. Evidently, we had found new insight regarding symmetry breaking, which is a fundamental feature in various types of materials science. This is a key part not only of polymer science but also, for example, in metal melts and alloys.”
 
Experiments Were Carried Out in Denmark
The interview with Dynamo takes place just before Frank Bates addresses a large audience at DTU for his H.C. Ørsted Lecture focused on exactly these fundamental perspectives. The invitation was based on a longstanding Danish-American connection.
 
Risø National Laboratory in Denmark, home of the decommissioned DR3 reactor where many neutron scattering experiments were conducted over three decades. PHOTO courtesy of Risø National Laboratory
“Kristoffer Almdal [today Professor at DTU Nanotech] was my first postdoc. We literally built my lab together. After Kristoffer returned to Denmark, we kept up our collaboration. For a number of years he facilitated neutron beam time for my group at the former Danish research facility DR3 at DTU’s Risø campus.”
 
To an outsider it may seem surprising that a US scientist would travel as far as Denmark to obtain time at an experimental facility.
 
“Well, neutron beam time is a truly limited resource. You need either a nuclear plant or a dedicated spallation source. Neither solution is within reach of a normal university setting due to both safety and economic concerns. In the USA we have just two facilities. They are both operated as national laboratories, meaning that researchers and industry all across the country compete for time.”
 
The DR3 reactor was closed down in 2000. Since then, Frank Bates has taken his experiments to the two US facilities and sometimes to facilities in Europe.
 
“When it comes to neutron scattering, Europe is more advanced than the US. The facility at Grenoble, France, is in my view the best in the world, while also German and Swiss facilities rank highly. Further, the European Spallation Source (ESS) in Sweden will become the leading source in the world once it opens. I understand that Denmark is a co-owner of ESS, and look forward to cash in on my Danish connections once again!”
 
Copolymers as Drug Delivery Systems
Why is neutron scattering so crucial in polymer science?
 
“When you examine crystals and other hard structures, often X-rays will be highly useful, but for soft materials like polymers, neutrons are, for certain purposes, even better. A strong method is to label molecules in the polymers through substitution of deuterium for hydrogen. Subsequently, you will be able to follow how the atoms and molecules will organize in both time and space. This is a unique tool.”
 
Besides polymers, the same is true for medicine and a range of other biological fields.
 
“Just to take an example, drug delivery is a topic which includes both polymer and biological insight. Co-polymers have a strong potential as drug delivery vehicles. My training as a chemical engineer hardly qualifies me for medical research, but in recent years I have been so involved I almost feel I am in that field!”
 
Still, future applications in more traditional engineering fields are also possible.
 
“An interesting feature in co-polymers is that you can pattern surfaces including silicon wafers with exquisite nanoscale resolution. These materials are being developed to permit manufacturing of computer chips and memory devices with unparalleled spatial resolution in an effort to sustain the ever increasing appetite for computational speed and storage capacity.”
 
Butterfly wing at different magnifications reveals microstructured chitin acting as a diffraction grating. IMAGE: Wikimedia Creative Commons
Inspired by the Wings of Butterflies
"Regarding the quasi-crystals, one interesting perspective is in photonics. It is well known that light can be manipulated in materials by use of so-called photonic band gaps. These gaps need to be manufactured very accurately at tiny length scales ranging from 100 nano-metres to 1 micron. This is an immense challenge to traditional manufacturing techniques. The ability of co-polymers to self-assemble with built-in quasi-crystals could be a solution.”
 
A related research field is micro-structuring of surfaces to provide certain properties. A topic included in Kristoffer Almdal’s current research.
 
“For instance, scientist at DTU Nanotech and others have shown that micro-structuring can alter the apparent colour of a material. This is a principle known from the wings of butterflies. In other words, applying the right structure can replace dye. Now we are back at the sustainability angle!”
 
This yet again confirms another observation in polymer science made by Bates.
 
"So many times during my carrier have I heard the phrase ‘now we know everything there is to know’ about a given subject. I have to admit that I have even used it myself on some occasions. But every time we have been proven wrong. Polymers continue to provide new features that amaze us!”
 

Frank S. Bates is a Professor in Materials Science in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota in USA. He heads the Bates Research Group, which does research into the thermodynamic and dynamic properties of polymer materials. 
 
He completed chemical engineering and materials science studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1979. He was also awarded a PhD from MIT in 1982. 
 
Frank Bates is particularly known for his studies of copolymers, whereby different polymers are combined to obtain new properties. Frank Bates is a member of the US National Academy of Engineering, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.