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Updated 10:00 AM Sept. 18, 2006
 

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  Research
'Branching' takes polymer materials to new heights

Not so long ago plastics were seen as cheap, durable materials, good for making toys and telephones and scores of other consumer products, but not for more demanding applications.

But with advances in polymer technology, plastic materials are finding their way into all sorts of optical and electronic devices where they're being used for energy storage, light harvesting, optical switching and other purposes.

New polymeric materials under investigation at U-M have branching molecular structures that make them particularly well-suited for a wide range of functions—from high-speed capacitors to protective eyewear for fighter pilots to medical research tools, says Professor of Chemistry Theodore Goodson III. Goodson and co-workers discussed the materials and their uses Sept. 13 in three presentations at the 232nd national meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco.

The materials under study are large molecules made up of smaller molecules, put together in a branching pattern. Interactions among the branches enhance the polarization of the materials, and enhanced polarization is a property with great utility.

"All of the applications we're exploring—energy storage, light harvesting, photovoltaic cells, for instance—rely on this polarization," Goodson says. "Another application that we have collaborated on with the U.S. Department of Defense for six years now relates to optical limiting, for eye protection and sensor protection. There is still a real concern about the vulnerability of our expensive airplanes to flashes of powerful laser light that would blind the pilot and destroy the aircraft's sensors, rendering it useless.

"What's needed is a material for eye protection that is transparent to the low-intensity light necessary for vision but at the same time capable of absorbing high-intensity light from a laser. That's what these materials do." Goodson's group uses many spectroscopic techniques to study how the materials' structures and functions are related.

His group also has been investigating the use of branched polymers and their interesting optical effects in medical research. The macromolecules can be used to detect aggregations of small proteins that have been found to form in Alzheimer's patients.

"Aggregation is related to the formation of plaques, which are hallmarks of Alzheimer's, but the first steps in the process are unknown," Goodson says. "Using our techniques and the sensitive properties of these materials, we are looking at ways to explore those early steps."

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