Organic and Bio-Inspired Materials

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The Organic and Bio-Inspired Materials Program at SIMES

Nature has already solved many engineering challenges. We look to nature’s solutions to create new materials either inspired by, or actually using, biological and organic material. Often, by knowing how the molecular components of living objects combine, we can replicate the same structures to build novel materials of our own.

SIMES research explores how basic polymer and protein building blocks that exist in nature can be used as templates for creating hybrid materials. In this new field of bioelectronics, self-assembling proteins can be used as the foundation for creating three-dimensional organic structures suitable for electronic components. These materials can lead to fundamentally new designs in bio-inorganic devices for energy storage, catalysis, solar cells and fuel cells.

In addition, organic materials, which include plastics, diamonds and biological proteins, can be combined with inorganic materials traditionally used in the electronics industry to help solve society’s needs for more energy efficiency and computational power.

Making a Whole Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

The junctions between organic inorganic materials have unique properties that can be used to improve:

  • Energy harvesting
  • Solar cell efficiency
  • Battery storage capacity

These materials include carbon nanotubes, small molecules, metallic waveguides, polymer semiconductors and even biological proteins. SIMES is exploring how the fundamental structure and processing of these materials influences their behavior, particularly how electrically conductive they are. For instance:

  • One example is a transparent electrode for solar cells. Traditionally indium tin oxide, a relatively expensive glass-like material is used to let visible light reach the active layers of the solar cell. An organic alternative based on carbon nanotubes can provide higher transparency, equivalent or better electrical conductivity, be lower cost and easier to process. By using sophisticated atomic force probes to measure the electrical potential within an operating nanotube electrode, our team is uncovering how the processing and mixture of tubes governs the electrical characteristics.
  • Another example is how enhancing or diminishing the absorption of light within polymer-metal structures can amplify solar cell efficiency and create nanoscale optical switches for optical computing.