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Queen Mary University of LondonQueen Mary University of London
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Research

Molecular Manufacturing of Macroscopic Objects - fellowship Stoyan Smoukov

Principal investigator: Stoyan SMOUKOV
Funding source(s): EPSRC Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
 Start: 01-09-2018  /  End: 31-08-2023
 Amount: £1,180,624
SEMS divisions:
Bottom up structuring of liquids without external fields or molds.
Manufacturing of anisotropic nano and micro- particles.

This interdisciplinary proposal proposes a molecular basis for Manufacturing for the Future,[a1] to grow many types of particles in a nature-inspired way. It offers scalability, near-full utilization of the material, and the ability to carry out transformations at near ambient conditions. Manufacturing in nature spans the scales from intricate nano-scale up to macroscale features and occurs at near ambient temperatures, without the need for expensive materials and infrastructure. Lithography is the closest technique at our disposal to reproduce such precision in manufacturing, but it requires wasteful use of specialized materials, expensive infrastructure, and is inherently a 2D technique with significant processing limitations. 

In the proposal we make use of our recent discoveries of artificial morphogenesis[52] to create manufacturing technologies with the ability to create particles of a variety of sizes (from nanoscale to macroscale) and regular geometric shapes. This adaptable molecular process which needs minimum infrastructure is especially suited for energy-and-material-efficient manufacturing in space. It will allow us to grow efficiently structures of a wide range of regular shapes with sizes from 50 nm to over 1 mm. We show successful attempts in synthesizing polymer particles by the self-shaping process and strategically outline ways to adapt it to the synthesis of shaped particles from various polymer and inorganic materials. Specific measurements of the thickness of the interfacial phase layer responsible for the transitions will expand the mechanistic understanding of the process. We will model the apparent influence of curvature for the observed 2D crystallization and melting and will use the insights to create a selection of new shapes by using mixtures of oils and surfactants. We will finally integrate the understanding of several dynamic phenomena to enable new modes of manufacturing with remote external control, such as light stimuli.

The current proposal, in the EPSRC's strategic priority area of 21st Century Products, aims to continue the stellar tradition which has kept the chemicals and chemical products manufacturing as the highest growth manufacturing industry over 3 decades. Our processes will be characterized by speed and agility, and would embody many desired properties for future manufacturing, e.g. local production closer to customers and modular production not requiring a factory. Instead of changing factories or factory tools, to change the output of particles, one only has to change the conditions for this molecular manufacturing to take place. Such a process will rely on highly skilled workers with knowledge of how process conditions affect the mechanism and production. Part of the proposal is specifically targeting the development of analytical techniques that will enable fast or even in situ characterization of the way molecular packings can change the shape transformations. Training will also make use of the inter-disciplinary network of partners created by the project. 

Commercialization of the technology would expand the manufacturing base in the UK with the potential for significant job creation in related companies and "foundry labs" based on the versatility and manufacturing efficiency of this platform technology. Our existing[a2] and future IP from the research will be used to protect and capitalize on these developments. Based on industrial interest in energy-efficient emulsification, with a grant from the European Research Council, we are already developing a proof-of-concept process for continuous industrial self-emulsification, which grew out of the self-shaping phenomenon. Initial successes in inorganic particle templating and particle polymerization will result in an opportunity to commercialize a novel type of nano-manufacturing, which will extend from the molecular to the macroscopic scales.