Very happy to report that research that I’ve spent the past 3 years amassing was published as an “advanced online publication” by Nature Chemistry on Sunday evening.
The work focusses on extending the concept of amphiphilic self assembly to fully hydrophobic molecules.
Amphiphilic molecules work because they have two parts – one is hydrophobic (water-hating) and the other hydrophilic (water-loving). We exploit this in cleaning applications: the hydrophobic parts adhere to any dirt or grease particulates and the hydrophilic parts allow them to be more easily dispersed in water.
However, amphiphiles have other interesting properties. One of these is an ability to self-assemble into different structures depending on their concentration, the local temperature and the sort of media into which they are dissolved. Molecular self assembly can be thought of as individual LEGO® bricks, representing individual molecules, that build themselves into larger structures (though I’m not sure how much fun a self-build LEGO® castle would be as a toy)
The molecules that we use are not amphiphiles in the conventional sense, in that they don’t have a hydrophilic part, but do possess two parts of different solvophilicity (two parts that like different solvents): long fatty chains (alkane moieties) attached to a π-conjugated part (for example, fullerene-C60). This makes them hydrophobic amphiphiles!
What we’ve done in the research is show that these hydrophobic amphiphiles self-assemble in much the same way as their more conventional counterparts. Potentially any kind of π-conjugated molecule could have this method applied to them, and work in the near future will look to generalise as much as possible.
One area in which this research could find immediate applications is in the burgeoning field of molecular electronics. Carbon-based electronic devices, which typically have π-conjugated molecules as the active component, could be much cheaper to manufacture than conventional silicon semiconductor technologies. They could lead to flexible circuitry that would be far less fragile than current solid-state gadgets such as mobile phones and tablet computers.