Molecular Mimicry: Plastic, Steel Line Up Like Kin

OCTOBER 20, 2010

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Tasty Science: One of the first models produced by a research team to model the molecular structure was built out of simple marshmallows and coffee stirrers. The method, researcher Frank Bates says, is "very low tech as far as the visualization goes." (Courtesy of Frank Bates)

Frank Bates didn't start out expecting to find a fundamental property of nature, but that's what he may have done.

Bates is a chemical engineer and materials scientist at the University of Minnesota. He makes block copolymers — a kind of plastic. Copolymer means they're made from two different plastics, the end product having the best properties of both.

"We had synthesized these molecules and wanted to know how they were organized down at the molecule scale," says Bates.

So he and his students went to the [DuPont-Northwestern-Dow Collaborative Access Team beamline at Sector 5 of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory], where there is a particularly powerful X-ray source, and shined a beam of X-rays on the block copolymers.

"We found something that was simply inexplicable," he says. They had a shape that no one had ever seen in a plastic before.

To read the rest of this NPR “Morning Edition” story, and listen to the broadcast, go to the NPR site here. (Copyright 2010 NPR)

See: Sangwoo Lee, Michael J. Bluemle,* Frank S. Bates*, “Discovery of a Frank-Kasper [sigma] Phase in Sphere-Forming Block Copolymer Melts,” Science 330(6002), 349 (15 October 2010). DOI: 10.1126/science.1195552

Author affiliation: University of Minnesota

Correspondence: *bates@cems.umn.edu

This work was supported by the Department of Energy through a subcontract to UT-Battelle (4000041622), the National Science Foundation through grant DMR-0704192, and the University of Minnesota Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC). Portions of this work were performed at the DuPont-Northwestern-Dow Collaborative Access Team (DND-CAT) located at Sector 5 of the Advanced Photon Source (APS). DND-CAT is supported by E. I. Dupont de Nemours & Company, the Dow Chemical Company, and the State of Illinois. Use of the APS was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, under contract DE-AC02-06CH11357. Parts of this work were carried out in the University of Minnesota I.T. Characterization Facility, which receives partial support from NSF through the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network program.

See also: “Recasting Metal Alloy Phases with Block Copolymers,” Mihai Peterca and Virgil Percec, Science Perspectives, Science 330(6002), 333 (15 October 2010). DOI: 10.1126/science.1196698]

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