Tiny Shapeshifters

Science and Technology @ UCSB

Imagine a generation of devices that operate not on electricity or batteries, but on light — an energy source that is both portable and abundant. Such technology could eliminate the costs associated with the manufacture of onboard energy systems and storage.An interdisciplinary group of scientists from several institutions, including UC Santa Barbara’s Javier Read de Alaniz, is embarking on an effort that could result in such next-generation devices. Still in its infancy, the endeavor could change the way we approach the design and manufacture of machines.
Read de Alaniz is co-principal investigator on the new $7.5 million, five-year Multidisciplinary Research Initiative (MURI)-funded project, “Photomechanical materials systems: from molecules to devices.”
“The way that we transport energy today requires you to have a physical contact with the device, such as an electrical cable, to transfer your energy to mechanical work,” said Read de Alaniz, a professor of chemistry. “But if you could envision, for example, the use of lasers to transport light from point A through free space to point B, and upon hitting point B cause the propagating light into mechanical work, all of a sudden you can transport work without having a physical device carrying the energy.”
A relatively new class of molecules called photo switches — molecules that respond to light with some change of their properties — is a key aspect of the technology. One of the most common examples is the material used in eyeglass lenses that causes them to darken in response to UV light exposure when you step outside. Those molecules belong in a type that respond with a change in optical properties, while other types may go from hydrophobic to hydrophilic.
Read de Alaniz and his group are interested in molecules that shapeshift in response to light, essentially becoming a ball when a light shines on them and returning to their original flat state …

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