Phototropic Smart Materials for Actuation and Responsive Technologies (PhotoSMART)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Kent
Department Name: Sch of Physical Sciences


An exciting new area of chemistry involves making new "smart" materials that can interact with their environment to produce soft robots. These pioneering systems can respond to a huge range of inputs with large deformations to perform tasks that are difficult or impossible to achieve with traditional technology. Smart materials capable of 'mechanical intelligence' - the ability to at once sense and respond to a specific stimulus in a controlled and defined manner, without the aid of electronics or additional control systems - has the potential to revolutionise biomedical devices. Imagine artificial muscles that can detect small changes in their environment to power artificial limbs, or surgical instruments that can sense and move around delicate areas of the body. The chemistry used to develop these smart materials can be used to tune specific properties - making the individual materials perfect for the specific task in hand. PhotoSMART aims to do just that, to produce an entirely new class of smart materials that move in response to light, and whose properties can be tuned through changing the chemistry of the system. Crucially these smart materials will work using visible light rather than damaging UV light - something that is vital to applications in biomedical environments.

Certain organic molecules respond to light by producing huge rearrangements in their chemical structure, causing molecular-scale movement. The exact wavelength at which they respond can be tuned by changing the chemistry of the molecule. PhotoSMART will involve integrating this switching functionality with flexible polymer materials that can be readily engineered. Subsequently, the active polymer materials will be carefully structured to amplify the molecular-scale motion to produce large movements that can perform useful tasks in the world around us.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries during PhotoSMART:
- Early career researchers (ECR) in the field of smart materials.
In month 15, an ECR workshop (ca 20 participants) will be organised by the PI with financial/logistical support from the Directed Assembly Network (see Project Partner 2 letter of support). This will provide an opportunity to build impact not only for PhotoSMART, but also for others in the area, helping to build a critical mass of expertise in this fledgling field within the UK. The PI has recently been appointed as a member of the Leadership Team of this EPSRC Grand Challenge Network, working with other investigators in the field to develop a community capable of addressing challenges in materials science. This opportunity provides the PI with unparalleled access to academics and industrial network members, to build this critical mass of expertise.
- School-age students.
During this project, the PI will actively participate in outreach in schools (ongoing organisation through SPS) presenting the science of PhotoSMART in an accessible manner. One of the real strengths of PhotoSMART is the highly visual nature of the active devices, and the capacity for simplistic understanding of the driving forces behind their function. The PI recently won a prize for best research talk for a non-academic audience at the annual SPS away day, demonstrating her capability to engage non-specialist audiences through enthusiasm and visually stimulating ideas.
- PDRA, MRes and PhD students (the latter two funded by the University of Kent).
The PDRA will be trained by the PI in advanced physical analysis of composite materials and will benefit from working with an established researcher as well as from interaction with collaborators. They will be in contact with Project Partner 1, Shadow Robot, through face-to-face meetings in months 6, 12 & 15, as well via email. This will provide the PRDA with opportunities to build industrial contacts, which is invaluable to professional development. The MRes and PhD students will benefit from the skills of both the PI and the PDRA, providing the PDRA with experience of managing people and projects. The PDRA and students will contribute to preparation of scientific manuscripts and present their work at conferences. The PI will act as an advisor to the PDRA concerning funding applications and encourage the candidate to actively engage with UoK's recognised researcher development programme, empowering him/her to take ownership of ongoing professional development and ensure a solid foundation upon which to build an independent career.
Part of the EPSRC's delivery plan to produce a "Productive Nation" is to "achieve technical leadership through development of future scientists, engineers & technologists". It will do this by "supporting emergent science fields... to ensure scientific discoveries have the potential to lead to innovative, disruptive products and technologies." Soft robotics represents a truly innovative field, in the early stages of development. Inspiring young students, as well as training PDRA and MRes/PhD students in this area, and building a strong ECR network has the potential to produce truly innovative technologies and leadership in years to come.

Beneficiaries beyond PhotoSMART:
- End-users of soft robotics. The field of soft robotics is so new that applications are at the development stage. They include artificial muscles, soft endoscopes and peristaltic valves for use inside the body. The development of new active materials through PhotoSMART will contribute to these aims. Support from project partner 1, who actively develop commercial robotics for biomedical applications will ensure development of materials meets technical and commercial requirements.
- UK Economy. These applications will make significant commercial impact within the UK. Intellectual property and commercialisation aspects will be dealt with through specialists in the Kent Enterprise and Innovation dept.


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Description The award is still ongoing, but significant progress towards the aims of the project have already been made: We have found a method to functionalise polymer materials with switchable molecular materials in significantly higher loadings than have previously been achieved for this class of material (manuscript in preparation). The resulting materials can be reversibly switched using visible light to produce surfaces that change their colour and surface wettability. We expect the materials to be taken forward by the supramolecular and polymer communities.
Exploitation Route The methodology for preparing high loadings of active material in polymer matrices will be useful for a variety of different applications in soft materials and dynamic interfaces.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description Additional financial Support for REF 2021 Outputs
Amount £11,404 (GBP)
Organisation University of Kent 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2019 
End 08/2019
Description Invitation to speak at departmental seminar, University of Leeds 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Approximately 40 postgraduate, undergraduate students and research staff attended my talk, sparking significant discussion and the beginnings of scientific collaborations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018