ERC Advanced Grant for physicist Marjolein Dijkstra

2.5 Million Euros for research on making passive nanomaterials alive

Marjolein Dijkstra

Prof. Marjolein Dijkstra (Physics) has been granted an ERC Advanced Grant. This is the highest research grant of the European Research Council, annually granted to exceptional and trailblazing senior researchers. Prof. Dijkstra will receive 2.5 million euros for her project Rational Design of Soft Hierarchical Materials with Responsive Functionalities: Machine learning Soft Matter to create Soft Machines

To go beyond traditional, passive nanostructure

The purpose of this project is to go beyond the traditional, passive nanostructures, and to develop design rules for soft materials and machines that can autonomously assemble, sense, respond, and reconfigure. Nature displays a plethora of self-assembled dynamic materials that respond to external stimuli. For instance, the motion of bacteria is directed by chemotaxis, chameleons change color to regulate their body temperature, plants have the ability to bend towards sunlight, and geckos can stick to surfaces due to tiny hairs on their feet. In all these cases, the ability to change shape is encoded in a sophisticated biological composite material consisting of a solid nanostructure and an elastic biopolymer network.

Investigation of soft reconfigurable materials

Inspired by these fascinating examples abound in nature, Prof. Marjolein Dijkstra plans to investigate a variety of soft reconfigurable materials with responsive functional properties that arise from a hierarchical assembly of structures and materials over multiple length scales. She will focus on dynamic materials that respond and undergo shape changes by elastically coupling the nanostructure to a soft elastic matrix or hydrogel.

These hydrogels or polymer networks can be actuated by pH, temperature, salt, or light, resulting into an influx or efflux of water that swells or shrinks the gel. The mechanical forces generated by the gel can reversibly reconfigure the nanostructure, thereby offering many exciting opportunities to make passive nanomaterials alive.

Reconfigurable dynamic materials that sense, respond, and adapt to changes in the environment have potential applications in, for example, drug delivery systems, windows that adapt their reflectivity, smart textiles, self-healing composites, and soft robotics.

Video: A ‘switchable’ crystal

The crystal lattice, consisting of cubic colloidal particles, can change shape by changing the size of the temperature sensitive microgel particles (not visible).