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  • Smart Materials © 2016 IIT 5035
  • Smart Materials © 2016 IIT 5036
  • Smart Materials © 2016 IIT 5032
  • Smart Materials © 2016 IIT 5033
  • Elastomers © 2016 IIT 5352

The group of Smart Materials is based at the central research facility of IIT in Genova. The research of the group deals with the development of new composite materials combining various polymers and changing their properties by introducing nanofillers or organic molecules in the matrices. We work on both the control of the chemistry and of the structure of the materials we develop, in order to achieve precise properties adjusted to the needs of various application fields. Since polymers are the main building blocks of the materials we fabricate, we have intensified our efforts in using natural polymers principally of plant origin or biodegradable polymers, in order to develop new advanced composite materials with accurately modulated properties but at the same time with minimal environmental impact.

Activities

Development of bio-based polymers and composites is at the frontline of polymer science and engineering research due to increasing concerns over environment and sustainability. Concerns related to the harmful effects of our disposable consumer lifestyle on the environment, many of them related to synthetic plastics wastes, are growing more and more. To directly address this issue, we are developing a range of eco-friendly plastics and composites made from sustainable crops or agricultural food waste or other bio-sources. So far, our group has gathered extensive expertise in different ways of fabrication of green composites. We use sustainable composite technologies compatible with industrial processes like extrusion or injection molding in order to produce materials that can easily be integrated in the productive chain.

One of the most promising fillers for polymers for the improvement of their physical properties is graphene. Recently, there has been an intense interest in the incorporation of graphene based nanofillers, in a wide range of polymer matrices in order to enhance the polymer performance. Graphene is a two dimensional, sp2-hybridised carbon layer that exhibits unique electrical and thermal transport properties along with mechanical stiffness and chemical stability. By incorporating graphene into a polymer matrix one can harness these extraordinary properties from the composite material, creating a new class of materials suitable for a wide range of applications, from nanoelectronics and biomedical engineering to textile industry.

Composite materials are properly tailored by the presence of nano or microfillers in order to be used for the removal/recovery or detection of environmental pollutants. Functional organic compounds, particles, or precursors are used, in order to form, or to functionalize already existing, organic porous materials and films. As a result, smart systems with special surface properties, able to interact efficiently with chemical species are formed. In particular, porous natural or synthetic polymers functionalized with nanoparticles, or organic fillers derived from agricultural wastes, are utilized for the efficient removal of heavy metal ions or for the recovery of precious metals from water. Furthermore, fibrous filters, or foams with tailored surface properties are developed for the efficient separation of oil from oil-polluted water. Concerning the pollutants in gas phase, functional porous films or nanofibers are developed for the detection of organic and inorganic acids and ammonia, upon color change or upon change in the conductivity of the nanocomposite.

Magnetic composites are formed through the mixing and/or the directed assembly of magnetic particles in polymeric matrices. Magnetic particles have sizes in the nano or micro scale, and can be ferromagnetic or superparamagnetic while the matrices can be in the form of polymers or monomer solutions that are subsequently polymerized. Such systems combine the magnetic responsivity with the properties of the polymers utilized. In this way, functional composite films or free standing wires are formed, with anisotropic properties able to respond to an external magnetic field towards a preferential direction. The combination of magnetic particles with other functional fillers can also result in the formation of magnetic composites with special surface properties or with multiple functionalities, such as electrical or thermal conductivity and magnetism at a preferential direction.

Nanocomposites are formed in-situ either by photochemical, thermal or chemical reduction of nanoparticle precursors embedded in polymer solid films, aerogels or foams. Depending on the total energy that the external stimulus offers to the system, the density and the size and of the nanoparticles formed in the solid matrix can be tuned. We have developed techniques for the localized formation of the nanofillers at specific areas of the polymers in the bulk or on their surfaces. Combination of precursors, or the appropriate selection of the polymer matrix and its structure leads to the formation of multifunctional films, fibers, foams or aerogels able to be used in diverse applications.

Unwanted wetting of surfaces as well as wet and dry adhesion to technologically important surfaces is known to cause serious problems in many important areas such as power lines, transportation, paper products, textiles, etc. Research in this field has satisfactorily advanced towards designing robust non-wetting surfaces and coatings with tailored adhesion properties. This is the main focus of this research line. Our research is aimed at providing good correlations between liquid repellency of surfaces and their mechanical properties as well as their solid adhesion properties. To this end, we combine our expertise on polymer science, nanoscale structuring as well as composite technology to fabricate novel soft and hard materials in the form of coatings, textile treatments or nanofibers. The right combination of chemistry and morphology can enable repelling of specific liquids with engineered local adhesion properties so that microliter droplets in the form of mist or fog can be manipulated (e.g. fog harvesting applications). Moreover, a similar approach is being developed to engineer surface chemistry in order to control solid-solid adhesion particularly using environmentally benign approaches.

The activities of this research line deal with the modification of fibrous substrates, like paper or textiles, in order to add to them properties that they lack intrinsically, and in this way expand and optimize their fields of applications. For these modifications are used polymeric nanocomposite materials, that embrace the individual fibers of the substrates with a protective ultrathin layer, that eventually provides the additional properties to the fibrous materials. The modified fibrous substrates can retain their structural characteristics, and thus properties like breathability or mechanical flexibility, but at the same time additional properties are added to them. The principal properties that are added to the treated fibrous materials are water repellency and humidity resistance. The addition of nanoparticles to the polymer coating of the fibers can give further functionalities to the treated materials. Some examples are antibacterial textiles, oil repellent paper, magnetic and fluorescent documents. The treatment of the paper or fabrics is done with methods that can be easily scalable for industrial applications, like spraying or rod coating.

Nowadays, the food supply chains have become complex, massive and international, and for this reason the quality of the food that we consume depends equally on its nutritional value and on its efficient packaging. Indeed, food packaging ensures elongated protection from contamination, safe transportation and provides information to the consumers. Unfortunately, food packaging is producing huge amounts of waste, especially non-biodegradable plastic. This research line is dedicated on the development of novel materials that can be used as containers or packaging solutions able to ensure optimized protection to food from the external environment, giving at the same time special emphasis on their sustainability. Sustainable and biodegradable materials, as pure or even recycled cellulose, biodegradable and natural polymers, are modified in order to become suitable for protective, safe, and environmentally zero-impact food packaging. At the same time, smart indicators that can give immediate information on the conditions of the packaged food are developed in the group in order to obtain intelligent food packaging systems.

Cellular materials are developed or modified, in order to obtain additional functionalities that lack intrinsically, preserving at the same time their structural characteristics. Organic compounds, particles, or precursors are used for the production of porous systems with special bulk and surface properties. The effect of the pores morphology and surface properties on their performance at applications such as interaction with chemical species or thermal/sound isolation is investigated together with the physicochemical mechanisms taking place. The formation of foams or aerogels is based on leaching, lyophilization, CO2 blowing etc. The functionalization of the cellular materials, fabricated or already existing, is performed by chemical functionalization of the pores, or by direct mixing of the functional particles in the polymer matrix and the subsequent porous formation. Fillers utilized are colloidal nanoparticles, commercially available particles, nanoparticles formed in-situ by chemical, photochemical, or thermal reduction of precursors, but also organic molecules such as photochromic, or fillers of natural origin such as particles of coffee, or orange peel.

Photochromic molecules isomerize after an interaction with an external stimulus, such as light irradiation, chemical interaction, temperature etc. changing their structure and color, while are able to recover their initial status after the appropriate treatment (dark storage, thermal treatment). Polymer films, nanofiber mats or foams incorporating photochromic molecules are developed, able to react with organic acid vapors on demand (after irradiation) and reversibly for various functioning cycles. Another interesting application of such systems is their ability to change reversibly the mechanical properties of the polymer matrix in which they are embedded. Furthermore some of them are able to self-assemble on diverse surfaces forming crystalline fibrils introducing thus to the formed system special surface properties which can be tuned by light, in wet or dry conditions. In this research activity the Smart Materials Group also develops composite materials able to respond to external stimuli as light, magnetic or electric field, or heat are developed, such as magnetic and/or conductive nanocomposite films with improved heat conductivity, magnetically actuated films, or films able to expand reversibly upon irradiation.

Materials for medical use have very strict requirements, because of the sensitive environment where they need to operate and the demanding properties that they need to  have. Among all the materials adopted, polymers have a good combination of properties to be used in very different context: from drug delivery to prosthesis and scaffolds. Nature itself uses several polymers to build living organisms: cellulose, chitin, collagen and keratin are polymers used to build all plants and animals. These materials are of strong interest to our group since they can degrade in the body with no toxic or harmful by-products and have a safe interaction with the biological environment. Together with our activity of development of innovative materials for scaffolding (photocurable PPF and cyanoacrylates) we study the use of natural polymers such as carbohydrates (cellulose, alginate, pectin) or proteins (silk fibroin and wool keratin) as materials for scaffold, drug delivery and resorbable devices. We also exploit them in combination with other natural products with biological activity like essential oils for application as wound dressing. In this case we focus our research on the control release of the active principles to the human body, for time periods from hours to several days.

Laboratories

The Smart Materials Group has state of the art facilities for the development and characterization of composite materials. We have a fully equipped chemical laboratory, ns and ps pulsed laser sources, microscopes, equipment for the mechanical and thermal characterization of composite materials, optical spectroscopy instruments, probe station, Atomic force Microscopy, X-Ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy, Field Flow Fractionation, electromagnet, electrospinning, spray coating, rod coaters, thermal extruder, 3-D printer, micro-machining equipment.

Projects

  • Project: BLINDPAD—Personal Assistive Device for BLIND and visually impaired People
  • Collaborative project: FP7-ICT-2013-10 (Sophie Marchi)
  • Project title: BIOPROTO— Bioplastic production from tomato peel residues Project number:625297, Call (part) identifier: FP7-PEOPLE-2013-IEF, Funding scheme: Marie Curie Actions— Intra-European Fellowships (IEF) (Jose Heredia Guerrero)

Collaborations

IIT

  • Graphene labs

National

  • Sabrina Moret - University of Udine,
  • Giuseppina Sandri Carla Caramella  Alice Garzoni, Cristina Bonferoni et al, -University of Pavia, Department of Drug Sciences, Pavia, Italy
  • Claudio Sangregorio,Claudia Innocenti,Dante Gatteschi, INSTM Research Unit and Dipartimento di Chimica, Universita` di Firenze, via della Lastruccia 3, 50019 Sesto F.no, Firenze, Italy
  • Elisabetta Zendri, Dipartimento di Scienze Ambientali, Informatica e Statistica (DAIS),Università Ca’Foscari – Venezia

International

  • University of Illinois (Megaridis, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering),
  • University of Virginia (Eric Loth, Aerospace Engineering),
  • University of Notre Dame (Lei Liu, Electrical Engineering),
  • ETH Zurich (Dimos Poulikakos, Mechanical Engineering)
  • Prof. Dr. Miguel Ángel Rodríguez-Pérez, Cellular Materials Laboratory (CellMat), Condensed Matter Physics Department, University of Valladolid
  • Group of Plant Biopolymer Characterization, Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, University of Malaga. Collaborator: Antonio Heredia.
  • Engineering Ceramics for Aggressive Environments, Institute of Materials Science of Seville, Spanish Research Council (CSIC)-University of Seville. Collaborator: José J. Benitez.
  • Center for Cellular and Molecular Engineering, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of Pittsburgh, USA
  • University of Nottingham, School of Pharmacy, Biophysics and Surface Analysis, Boots Science Building, University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK4