The Controlled Synthesis of Nanostructured Polymers Using Molecular Machines

Lead Research Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Department Name: Sch of Biological and Chemical Sciences


Nature makes extensive use of co-polymers to create well-defined nanostructures. These polymers such as proteins and nucleic acid are produced, manipulated and maintained by complex but highly efficient molecular machines. Mankind too
has begun to take advantage of the self-assembly properties of co-polymers to produce nanostructures and these are now beginning to find applications in health care, and the electronics and energy industries. However, our ability to make
nanostructured polymers lags significantly behind natural systems.

Given the significant benefits nature has found in using molecular machines to produce nanostructured co-polymers it seems reasonable to suggest that we could do the same for non-natural materials. Here we propose a simple molecular
machine that does just that: it uses controlled molecular motion to measure the length of a growing polymer chain and produce blocks of monomers of a fixed length (L). By application of external stimuli (light, pH) it can be operated repetitively to produce multiple blocks of length L with a variety of monomers in order to build up a nanostructured polymer with extremely well defined features and properties.

Each molecular machine can be used to make multiple copies of the product in much the same way as biological machines make multiple copies of their target. Further, as the machine control is provided by external stimuli and addition of
monomers, a single generic device can be used to make many different products simply by varying the monomers provided. These factors combine to make the proposed machine potentially applicable to real-world problems and suggests
they may find industrial applications.

Our unusual, bio-inspired approach to polymer synthesis will revolutionize access to nanostructured block co-polymers and could thus prove transformative across a range of nanotechnology applications.

Planned Impact

We propose to develop an innovative molecular machine for the controlled synthesis of co-polymers. This research will involve important advances in the areas of Catalysis, Synthetic Supramolecular Chemistry, Chemical Structure and
Chemical Reaction Dynamics and Mechanisms, with potential specific applications to Polymeric Materials, Photonics and Metamaterials, Materials for Energy Applications and Displays.

Academic Beneficiaries

Academic researchers in all the EPSRC funded areas mentioned above will benefit from an improved understanding of the way catalysts work in both standard and mechanically interlocked environments and the realisation of novel methods for the preparation of nanostructured materials. The results obtained also have implications for the understanding of analogous biological systems, such as those related to DNA processing.

Industrial Beneficiaries

Our research will provide the tools to access custom-made block co-polymers. These materials are currently extremely challenging to prepare, but are key to developments in a range of industries including the plastics electronics (displays for portable devices), healthcare (drug carriers for targeted drug delivery), energy (plastic photovoltaic materials), and information technology (magnetic block co-polymers have shown promise as information storage materials). In the long
term, our research will have a major impact in all of these areas by providing these industries access to better quality materials and greater control upon the properties of such materials. Thus, applied research into these areas will be
significantly facilitated which will lead to better and cheaper products.

Societal Beneficiaries

By boosting applied research into the areas of display technologies, electronic materials, drug delivery and sustainable energy, this research has the long-term potential to greatly enhance the quality of life for society as a whole: new portable electronic devices, with improved display capabilities, such as flexible screens; drugs that only target the desired biological systems and thus present reduced or no side effects; green energy solutions by harvesting the energy of the sun more efficiently. Our research, thus greatly contributes to the development of society in a sustainable way.

Further to these long term benefits, during the course of this project, two Postdoctoral Researchers will be trained in the development of complex catalytic process, their detailed analysis and their application to the design of elegant molecular machines. These highly trained researchers will be key in the transfer of this new technology into industry and subsequently to the final user. Further, the overall skills gained will make them invaluable either in an academic or an
industry environment, since they will become experts in an area of chemistry with numerous applications.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
EP/L016621/1 01/04/2014 30/09/2014 £250,184
EP/L016621/2 Transfer EP/L016621/1 01/10/2014 30/09/2015 £167,342
Description We developed a new approach to rotaxane molecular shuttles, key components of molecular machines, and a new class of stimuli responsive gold catalysts.
Exploitation Route New methodology developed during the project has been published (Chem Sci) and will be extremely useful to the wider community in the synthesis of new smart materials.

Similarly, the switchable gold catalyst that has been developed is the subject of current work in the group and funding applications to develop its potential in organic synthesis is underway.
Sectors Chemicals,Energy

Description Consolidator Grant
Amount € 2,000,000 (EUR)
Funding ID 724987 
Organisation European Research Council (ERC) 
Sector Public
Country Belgium
Start 05/2017 
End 05/2022
Description Marie Curie International Fellowships
Amount € 183,000 (EUR)
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 10/2015 
End 09/2017