Multicomponent Supramolecular Hydrogels

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Chemistry


The vision of this fellowship is to develop the requisite understanding of multicomponent low molecular weight gels such that they can be used for practical applications in energy, complementing the growing body of work on the use of these systems in medicine and drug delivery. Multicomponent gels offer significant new opportunities in terms of generating useful and exciting new structures. Specifically in this fellowship, we will develop conductive materials, as well as bulk heterojunctions, using low molecular weight gelators. This requires specific assembly of multiple components with careful control over the assembly across many length-scales. The aim here is to develop effective solar cells in an unprecedented way.

Currently, multicomponent systems are rare and introduce significant complexity and questions: for example, do the components mix, specifically or randomly, or do they self-sort, to create assemblies of one pure component co-existing with pure assemblies of the other? Also, once the primary assembly has occurred, how are these structures distributed in space? Do they interact randomly, or can specific, higher-order structures be formed? Such questions are fundamental to the development of technology such as solar cells, where energy transfer between the molecular components is core to their function. A particular challenge here is to guide multicomponent self-assembling systems across many length-scales, precisely positioning individual molecules or assemblies within well organised, highly-ordered structures in order to achieve a reproducible, highly-controlled network.

Here, I focus on a class of low molar mass gelators with which I have significant experience. I will develop a thorough understanding of the conditions under which gelation occurs for each component to prepare gels where components are specifically located. For success, I will develop systems consisting of two LMWG containing aromatic groups whose spectral adsorptions complement each other with appropriate HOMO and LUMO levels. I will develop methods to ensure that well-ordered self-sorted structures are formed, which entangle to form structures with a suitable interface. This requires control over assembly across multiple length-scales. The main challenges here focus on ensuring the microstructure is correct and that the percolation paths are ideal. There is limited understanding for single LMWG systems, let alone for two-component systems. As such, this work will take the area significantly beyond the current state of the art and also provides a new application for these materials through their development for solar cell technology.

Planned Impact

The outputs of this fellowship will be (i) the first thorough understanding of multicomponent gel materials, (ii) new methods for the generation of patterned and structured gels, (iii) new methods for the directed self-assembly of multicomponent gels to give bulk heterojunctions, (iv) solar cells incorporating multicomponent bulk heterojunctions, (v) new methods which will enable potential applications in optical materials and sensors, (vi) three scientists trained in rational molecule design, structural characterization, electrochemistry, and device preparation, (vii) protection of relevant IP and, (viii) a descriptor-based approach to predicting the molecular gelation ability.

The ultimate output of the project will be new soft functional materials for photovoltaic devices, prepared by 'bottom-up' self-assembly methods, rather than, for example, 'top down' methods such as microlithography. Such devices could provide long-term benefits by contributing to generating energy to help satisfy future demands. More generally, society will benefit from the understanding of the self-assembly of multicomponent systems for advanced functional materials and their large range of potential applications. This leads from the understanding we will generate; without the ability to rationally design materials, it is extremely difficult to harness their capabilities. Society will also benefit from the trained personnel emerging from the programme equipped to contribute to UK industry technology intensive and high value manufacturing sectors.

We will work with the University Research Office and the KCMC (an applied materials chemistry collaboration between the Universities of Bolton, Liverpool, Manchester and STFC Daresbury Laboratories) to ensure the widest possible dissemination of relevant developments to UK chemicals-using and broader industry sectors. KCMC has supported 71 companies, generating over £6M of industrial funding since March 2009. KCMC has extensive links to the Knowledge Transfer networks (KTNs) and also runs the Materials Chemistry Special Interest Group (MC SIG) with funding from the TSB. These networks provide direct links with companies in multiple sectors providing a platform for disseminations and collaborative partner identification.

Economic beneficiaries will be companies and/or IP groups who wish to take the technology developed during the project further. We have achieved this before, with direct transfer of technology into two SMEs as well as setting up a CASE studentship with Unilever. 2Bio, a specialist innovation support company and the KCMC will provide technology assessment and market analysis in the PV sector and additional sectors based on specific research outputs. The KCMC network of industry partners and collaborators will be engaged to maximise the uptake of the developed technology and future collaboration.

Liverpool is currently developing the Materials Innovation Factory (MIF), a revolutionary £50million project by the University, Unilever and HEFCE. The MIF will house >£10 million worth of measurement and testing instrumentation, including high-throughput techniques, high-end analytical techniques and other unique capabilities to greatly accelerate research times. Industry and academic partners will work and innovate together within a shared, bespoke environment to foster both fundamental and applied research innovation in materials chemistry and formulation science.

All these mechanisms will ensure that the science emerging from the project will be disseminated and evaluated and exploited with many UK-based companies, via individual discussions and themed industry days, using summaries of emerging materials and methodologies prepared by the KT team. We will also disseminate information using the EPSRC Directed Assembly Network and via two targeted multidisciplinary conferences aimed at both academic and industrial scientists.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
EP/L021978/1 31/12/2014 30/09/2016 £1,240,595
EP/L021978/2 Transfer EP/L021978/1 01/10/2016 31/12/2019 £791,612
Description We have been able to prepare a number of systems where the order in which different molecules can self-assemble is controlled. Specifically, we have used molecules that are able to conduct, and we have been able to use these materials to prepare photoconductive films. As part of this, we have also developed new methods to prepare aligned structures, as well as new analytical methods for following the formation of gels.
Exploitation Route A number of other research groups are already using our appraoches, for a number of applications.
Sectors Electronics,Energy,Healthcare

Description Provided are novel naphthalene diimide (NDI) compound of Formula 1. The compounds may exhibit colour change from substantially transparent to substantially black upon electrochemical or photochemical stimulus and may be useful in smart windows. 
IP Reference WO2020043895 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2020
Licensed No
Impact We are in discussion with a company and are in the process of preparing effective demonstrator models using an IAA award to enable this.