Self-assembly

Living systems are compelling evidence that multi scale, adaptive architectures can be built simply by letting their smallest parts self-organize as dictated by their intrinsic properties. 

Efforts to explain the mystery of self-assembly have ranged from “collective thinking” within continuously reconfiguring bird flocks to sophisticated algorithms describing how chains of local interactions can give rise to bacterial communities and cellular machinery. Yet we have little understanding of how to systematically encode such interactions directly into physical building blocks to track and control their assembly into arbitrary, dynamic structures, particularly at the nanoscale. 

Using periodic nanofiber arrays as both a model system and a starting point for fabricating optical, adhesive, and microfluidic materials, our group has demonstrated and developed a predictive theory for how to create elaborate helical, hierarchical structures simply by tweaking the mechanical, chemical, and geometric features of the fibers. Intriguingly, step-by-step examination of the process revealed an unexpected concept: the final structure is achieved through hierarchical stages of not only assembly but also disassembly.

Our continuing analysis of this latter phase suggests how, with a comprehensive understanding of the forces at play, building block features can be used to program selective, inducible top-down self-disassembly steps, giving the assembled structures a wide variety of dynamic, reversible, responsive behaviors. Yet another surprising self-assembly principle has come from our recent work on colloids: we have discovered that letting two different sets of building blocks co-assemble from the bottom up can enhance the long-range order of each by mutual correction of defects, and this too has led us to explore a new realm of possibilities for bottom-up creation of hierarchical architectures.

Phillips KR, Shirman T, Shirman E, Shneidman AV, Kay TM, Aizenberg J. Nanocrystalline Precursors for the Co-Assembly of Crack-Free Metal Oxide Inverse Opals. Adv. Mater. [Internet]. 2018;30 :1706329. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Inorganic microstructured materials are ubiquitous in nature. However, their formation in artificial self-assembly systems is challenging as it involves a complex interplay of competing forces during and after assembly. For example, colloidal assembly requires fine-tuning of factors such as the size and surface charge of the particles and electrolyte strength of the solvent to enable successful self-assembly and minimize crack formation. Co-assembly of templating colloidal particles together with a sol–gel matrix precursor material helps to release stresses that accumulate during drying and solidification, as previously shown for the formation of high-quality inverse opal (IO) films out of amorphous silica. Expanding this methodology to crystalline materials would result in microscale architectures with enhanced photonic, electronic, and catalytic properties. This work describes tailoring the crystallinity of metal oxide precursors that enable the formation of highly ordered, large-area (mm2) crack-free titania, zirconia, and alumina IO films. The same bioinspired approach can be applied to other crystalline materials as well as structures beyond IOs.

Shirman E, Shirman T, Shneidman AV, Grinthal A, Phillips KR, Whelan H, Bulger E, Abramovitch M, Patil J, Nevarez R, et al. Modular Design of Advanced Catalytic Materials Using Hybrid Organic–Inorganic Raspberry Particles. Adv. Func. Mater. [Internet]. 2017 :1704559. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Catalysis is one of the most sophisticated areas of materials research that encompasses a diverse set of materials and phenomena occurring on multiple length and time scales. Designing catalysts that can be broadly applied toward global energy and environmental challenges requires the development of universal frameworks for complex catalytic systems through rational and independent (or quasi-independent) optimization of multiple structural and compositional features. Toward addressing this goal, a modular platform is presented in which sacrificial organic colloids bearing catalytic nanoparticles on their surfaces self-assemble with matrix precursors, simultaneously structuring the resulting porous networks and fine-tuning the locations of catalyst particles. This strategy allows combinatorial variations of the material building blocks and their organization, in turn providing numerous degrees of freedom for optimizing the material’s functional properties, from the nanoscale to the macroscale. The platform enables systematic studies and rational design of efficient and robust systems for a wide range of catalytic and photocatalytic reactions, as well as their integration into industrial and other real-life environments.

Shirman T, Lattimer J, Luneau M, Shirman E, Reece C, Aizenberg M, Madix RJ, Aizenberg J, Friend CM. New Architectures for Designed Catalysts: Selective Oxidation using AgAu Nanoparticles on Colloid-Templated Silica. Chem. Eur. J. [Internet]. 2018;24 :1833 –1837 . Publisher's VersionAbstract

A highly modular synthesis of designed catalysts with controlled bimetallic nanoparticle size and composition and a well-defined structural hierarchy is demonstrated. Exemplary catalysts—bimetallic dilute Ag-in-Au nanoparticles partially embedded in a porous SiO2 matrix (SiO2–AgxAuy)— were synthesized by the decoration of polymeric colloids with the bimetallic nanoparticles followed by assembly into a colloidal crystal backfilled with the matrix precursor and subsequent removal of the polymeric template. This work reports that these new catalyst architectures are significantly better than nanoporous dilute AgAu alloy catalysts (nanoporous Ag3Au97) while retaining a clear predictive relationship between their surface reactivity with that of single-crystal Au surfaces. This paves the way for broadening the range of new catalyst architectures required for translating the designed principles developed under controlled conditions to designed catalysts under operating conditions for highly selective coupling of alcohols to form esters. Excellent catalytic performance of the porous SiO2–AgxAuy structure for selective oxidation of both methanol and ethanol to produce esters with high conversion efficiency, selectivity, and stability was demonstrated, illustrating the ability to translate design principles developed for support-free materials to the colloid-templated structures. The synthetic methodology reported is customizable for the design of a wide range of robust catalytic systems inspired by design principles derived from model studies. Fine control over the composition, morphology, size, distribution, and availability of the supported nanoparticles was demonstrated.

Kaplan CN, Noorduin WL, Li L, Sadza R, Folkertsma L, Aizenberg J, Mahadevan L. Controlled growth and form of precipitating microstructures. Science [Internet]. 2017;355 (6332) :1395-1399. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Controlled self-assembly of three-dimensional shapes holds great potential for fabrication of functional materials. Their practical realization requires a theoretical framework to quantify and guide the dynamic sculpting of the curved structures that often arise in accretive mineralization. Motivated by a variety of bioinspired coprecipitation patterns of carbonate and silica, we develop a geometrical theory for the kinetics of the growth front that leaves behind thin-walled complex structures. Our theory explains the range of previously observed experimental patterns and, in addition, predicts unexplored assembly pathways. This allows us to design a number of functional base shapes of optical microstructures, which we synthesize to demonstrate their light-guiding capabilities. Overall, our framework provides a way to understand and control the growth and form of functional precipitating microsculptures.

Utech S, Bley K, Aizenberg J, Vogel N. Tailoring re-entrant geometry in inverse colloidal monolayers to control surface wettability. J. Mater. Chem. A. 2016;4 (18) :6853-6859.Abstract

Controlling the microscopic wetting state of a liquid in contact with a structured surface is the basis for the design of liquid repellent as well as anti-fogging coatings by preventing or enabling a given liquid to infiltrate the surface structures. Similarly, a liquid can be confined to designated surface areas by locally controlling the wetting state, with applications ranging from liquid transport on a surface to creating tailored microenvironments for cell culture or chemical synthesis. The control of the wetting of a low-surfacetension liquid is substantially more difficult compared to water and requires surface structures with overhanging features, known as re-entrant geometries. Here, we use colloidal self-assembly and templating to create two-dimensional nanopore arrays with tailored re-entrant geometry. These pore arrays, termed inverse monolayers, are prepared by backfilling a sacrificial colloidal monolayer with a silica sol–gel precursor material. Varying the precursor concentration enables us to control the degree to which the colloids are embedded into the silica matrix. Upon calcination, nanopores with different opening angles result. The pore opening angle directly correlates with the re-entrant curvature of the surface nanostructures and can be used to control the macroscopic wetting behavior of a liquid sitting on the surface structures. We characterize the wetting of various liquids by static and dynamic contact angles and find correlation between the experimental results and theoretical predictions of the wetting state based on simple geometric considerations. We demonstrate the creation of omniphobic surface coatings that support Cassie–Baxter wetting states for liquids with low surface tensions, including octane (g ¼ 21.7 mN m1). We further use photolithography to spatially confine such low-surface-tension liquids to desired areas of the substrate with high accuracy.

Liu Y, Yong X, McFarlin IV G, Kuksenok O, Aizenberg J, Balazs AC. Designing a gel–fiber composite to extract nanoparticles from solution. Soft Matter. 2015;11 (44) :8692-8700.Abstract

The extraction of nanoscopic particulates from flowing fluids is a vital step in filtration processes, as well as the fabrication of nanocomposites. Inspired by the ability of carnivorous plants to use hair-like filaments to entrap species, we use computational modeling to design a multi-component system that integrates compliant fibers and thermo-responsive gels to extract particles from the surrounding solution. In particular, hydrophobic fibers are embedded in a gel that exhibits a lower critical solution temperature (LCST). With an increase in temperature, the gel collapses to expose fibers that self assemble into bundles, which act as nanoscale ‘‘grippers’’ that bind the particles and draw them into the underlying gel. By varying the relative stiffness of the fibers, the fiber–particle interaction strength and the shear rate in the solution, we identify optimal parameters where the particles are effectively drawn from the solution and remain firmly bound within the gel layer. Hence, the system can be harnessed in purifying fluids and creating novel hybrid materials that integrate nanoparticles with polymer gels.

Wei Z, Schneider TM, Kim J, Kim H-J, Aizenberg J, Mahadevan L. Elastocapillary coalescence of plates and pillars. Proc. R. Soc. A. 2015;471 (2175) :20140593.Abstract

When a fluid-immersed array of supported plates or pillars is dried, evaporation leads to the formation of menisci on the tips of the plates or pillars that bring them together to form complex patterns. Building on prior experimental observations, we use a combination of theory and computation to understand the nature of this instability and its evolution in both the two- and three-dimensional setting of the problem. For the case of plates, we explicitly derive the interaction torques based on the relevant physical parameters associated with pillar deformation, contact-line pinning/depinning and fluid volume changes. A Bloch-wave analysis for our periodic mechanical system captures the window of volumes where the two-plate eigenvalue characterizes the onset of the coalescence instability. We then study the evolution of these binary clusters and their eventual elastic arrest using numerical simulations that account for evaporative dynamics coupled to capillary coalescence. This explains both the formation of hierarchical clusters and the sensitive dependence of the final structures on initial perturbations, as seen in our experiments. We then generalize our analysis to treat the problem of pillar collapse in three dimensions, where the fluid domain is completely connected and the interface is a minimal surface with the uniform mean curvature. Our theory and simulations capture the salient features of experimental observations in a range of different situations and may thus be useful in controlling the ensuing patterns.

Vasquez Y, Kolle M, Mishchenko L, Hatton BD, Aizenberg J. Three-Phase Co-Assembly: In-situ Incorporation of Nanoparticles into Tunable, Highly-Ordered, Porous Silica FIlms. ACS Photonics [Internet]. 2014;1 (1) :53-60. Full TextAbstract

We present a reproducible, one-pot colloidal co-assembly approach that results in large-scale, highly ordered porous silica films with embedded, uniformly distributed, accessible gold nanoparticles. The unique coloration of these inverse opal films combines iridescence with plasmonic effects. The coupled optical properties are easily tunable either by changing the concentration of added nanoparticles to the solution before assembly or by localized growth of the embedded Au nanoparticles upon exposure to tetrachloroauric acid solution, after colloidal template removal. The presence of the selectively absorbing particles furthermore enhances the hue and saturation of the inverse opals’ color by suppressing incoherent diffuse scattering. The composition and optical properties of these films are demonstrated to be locally tunable using selective functionalization of the doped opals.

Phillips KR, England GT, Sunny S, Shirman E, Shirman T, Vogel N, Aizenberg J. A colloidoscope of colloid-based porous materials and their uses. Chem. Soc. Rev. [Internet]. 2016;45 (2) :281-322. Full TextAbstract
Nature evolved a variety of hierarchical structures that produce sophisticated functions. Inspired by these natural materials, colloidal self-assembly provides a convenient way to produce structures from simple building blocks with a variety of complex functions beyond those found in nature. In particular, colloid-based porous materials (CBPM) can be made from a wide variety of materials. The internal structure of CBPM also has several key attributes, namely porosity on a sub-micrometer length scale, interconnectivity of these pores, and a controllable degree of order. The combination of structure and composition allow CBPM to attain properties important for modern applications such as photonic inks, colorimetric sensors, self-cleaning surfaces, water purification systems, or batteries. This review summarizes recent developments in the field of CBPM, including principles for their design, fabrication, and applications, with a particular focus on structural features and materials' properties that enable these applications. We begin with a short introduction to the wide variety of patterns that can be generated by colloidal self-assembly and templating processes. We then discuss different applications of such structures, focusing on optics, wetting, sensing, catalysis, and electrodes. Different fields of applications require different properties, yet the modularity of the assembly process of CBPM provides a high degree of tunability and tailorability in composition and structure. We examine the significance of properties such as structure, composition, and degree of order on the materials' functions and use, as well as trends in and future directions for the development of CBPM.
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