AMHERST, Mass. — A University of Massachusetts Amherst research team was awarded a four-year, $1.75 million National Science Foundation grant.
The grant will be used for study and construction of soft, stretchable electronic devices to be used in future health care, security and communications applications, according to a news release.
The team will use conductive protein nanowires and mechanically soft nanomaterials to develop a strong, flexible and conductive nanocomposite, according to the university. The composites are used for fields including wearable devices, soft robotics and personalized health care.
"The conductive protein nanowires exhibit highly tunable conductivity while remaining significantly softer than carbon nanotubes or noble metals such as gold," Stephen Nonnenmann, associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, said in a statement. "The second key point is that they disperse evenly in water, while nanotubes and metals clump together. These two factors really make pili-polymer nanocomposite pairings particularly exciting to explore and manufacture."
The team, an interdisciplinary research group, includes leader Nonnenmann; Todd Emrick, professor of polymer science and engineering; Derek Lovley, distinguished professor of microbiology; and Jessica Schiffman, associate professor of chemical engineering. All four are affiliated with the Institute of Applied Life Sciences, which combines expertise from 29 university departments.
Soft electronics will require highly conductive materials which also remain chemically and mechanically compatible with the host matrix, according to the release. Current stretchable electronics use conductive materials such as metal nanowires or carbon nanotubes embedded in stretchable elastic polymers, which often fail because of mechanical material mismatch. The conductive protein nanowires, or pili, used in the new devices will work as a conductive element in the electronics.
The award comes through the NSF Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future program, which is related to the national Materials Genome Initiative, according to the release. The DMREF team includes Arthi Jayaraman, professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Delaware.
The team will design and develop protein nanowire-matrix pairings that are functional and easily manufactured, according to the release. Members of the team will use their expertise to contribute to the process. Development will pair molecular modeling from Jayaraman with synthetic biology through Lovley. It will determine amino acid sequences that provide conductivity and anchor points into polymer matrices with Emrick and flexible fabrics through Schiffman in parallel. Nonnenmann will evaluate the electronic-mechanical functionality with advanced microscopy and transport methods.