The new Interactive Polymeric Materials Research Center receives more than 15 million euros to develop new dynamic and sustainable polymer materials for science and society.
In a truly unique funding outcome, a multidisciplinary project involving only a number of TU/e researchers led by Jan van Hest and Patricia Dankers has been awarded more than 15 million euros in the latest NWO Gravitation awards. The Gravitation funding program aims to provide scientific consortia with the funding needed to become world leaders in their research field. The TU/e researchers will use the funding to establish the Interactive Polymeric Materials Research Center in Eindhoven.
You’ll find polymers in plastic packaging, mobile phones, and medical devices. While polymers have helped society over the past century, current polymeric materials face challenges. And it’s these problems that TU/e researchers in the new Interactive Polymeric Materials (IPM) Research Center, which has just received significant funding as part of NWO’s Gravitation program, plan to solve.
Interactive and sustainable polymers
“Current polymer materials are great for one application, but they can’t change their properties ‘on-the-fly’ for another application, which would be useful in healthcare,” notes Jan van Hest, scientific director of the Institute for Complex Molecular Systems (ICMS) and coordinating researcher for the IPM Research Center. “Besides that, traditional polymers are not recycled very well, due to the fixed nature of bonds within the polymers. The new center seeks to address these issues.”
“We want to develop polymers that can easily interact with the environment around them and then change their properties in response to the environment,” adds Patricia Dankers, professor in Biomedical Materials & Chemistry in the ICMS. “This can be materials that use certain signals to move, as well as engineered living materials that can send and receive signals like those in biological cells. And of course, we will be thinking sustainably when it comes to the design and production of these materials. In effect, we need materials that can break apart on demand, and then use their building blocks to make new materials.”
Along with a multidisciplinary team of TU/e researchers, Van Hest and Dankers are seeking to develop fully interactive polymer materials. These materials could then be applied in many different ways such as in actuating materials for soft robots, in materials that enable improved communication between living cells and new drugs or regeneration treatments, and in materials that can recycle upon command.
“In Eindhoven, we have a lively research community in the field of polymer science, which means that we have established expertise to help tackle the challenges of creating interactive and circular polymer materials. We are ideally placed to innovate and create the next generation of polymer materials,” says Dankers. “I am very excited to bring the team together and make polymer innovation happen.”
Besides revolutionizing polymer materials, the new center also wants to make an impact on training the next generation of researchers. “We want to deliver resilient scientists who can work seamlessly between disciplines, perform great science, and have a mindset for sustainability,” adds Monique Bruining, Managing Director of ICMS.
Receiving the NWO Gravitation fund is a significant achievement for any researcher, something that Van Hest, who was awarded the Spinoza Prize in 2020, recognizes. “It is a great honor, and a great opportunity to showcase the strength and breadth of Eindhoven polymer science. The grant provides us with the means to innovate polymer materials with circularity as a basic philosophy.”
And for Bruining, the funding means also a lot. “Not only do we get the trust and funds to do great science, but also the endorsement to train and equip young talent to address academic, industrial, and societal challenges in an unprecedented way. We invite industry to team up with us to translate scientific concepts to interactive and circular polymer products, and to interact with our talent who will have a 21st century mindset geared toward next generation polymer materials.”
Funding for the new IPM Research Center will be used to hire new personnel to strengthen the research team. “We also aim to invest some of the funding in analytical tools that will allow us to study in unprecedented detail the materials that we create at the center,” says Van Hest.
About the NWO Gravitation Awards 2022
The Gravitation program is implemented by NWO on behalf of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. NWO is responsible for the selection of the research groups. NWO received 40 applications for funding within the Gravitation program in this round. Consortia of research groups could submit their applications through their universities. 15 consortia were invited for an interview, and in the end, seven consortia were selected. The assessment, mutual comparison, and selection were carried out by external referees and an international independent committee of scientists with experience of working on major scientific research projects.
This article was first published on May 2 by TU/e.