Building Polymers One Molecule at a Time

A Mizzou Engineering researcher has demonstrated a new method of controlling material behavior by building polymers molecule-by-molecule.

Polymers are made of long, repeating chains of single molecules known as monomers. In this study, Matthias Young — an assistant professor of biomedical, biological and chemical engineering — focused on monomers that exhibit high electrochemical capabilities, making them good candidates to serve as electrode materials for energy storage.

Young and others have previously demonstrated that they could grow inorganic films onto carbon electrodes to make fast-charging batteries and supercapacitors, through a process known as atomic layer deposition. However, scaling up that process proved too expensive.

Now, he’s using organic molecules that can be derived from oil, making them abundant and inexpensive. Using a vapor-phase process, Young was able to demonstrate controlled molecular assembly of polymers using different monomers to get the desired polymer structure.

“Now that we’ve shown how we can grow these polymers this way, the next step is to see what other monomers we can use,” Young said. “There are a lot of monomers that could work, so we should be able to access a wide range of new polymer materials. What I’m excited about moving forward is using this molecular-level structure control to understand fundamental aspects of why polymers have the properties they do.”

Ultimately, by controlling the structure of polymers, Young envisions creating new types of materials for high-energy batteries, water desalination devices and sensors that detect water contamination.

“This work is foundational with a lot of potential applications,” he said. “It’s meaningful for polymer science as a whole. With all the possibilities stemming from this early work, I can imagine this area of research growing into a whole new field..”

The paper was published this summer in Applied Polymer Materials, a publication of the American Chemical Society. Co-authors are Quinton K. Wyatt and Nikhila C. Paranamana from the Department of Chemistry; Mitchel Vaninger and Thomas W. Heitmann from the Department of Physics and Astronomy; and Helmut Kaiser from the MU Research Reactor.