Using & Abusing Smart Polymers


Thomas Swift

#43 Under the Microscope | Using & Abusing Smart PolymersPranoti | Thomas
00:00 / 08:30

Lecturer in Polymer Chemistry

University of Bradford (UK)

#44 Under the Microscope | Using & Abusing Smart PolymersPranoti | Thomas
00:00 / 25:22

Please explain your research in simple words

I study 'Functional' Polymer Materials - i.e. big molecules (both biological and synthetic) that can be used for specific applications be it binding and removing things from solutions, diagnostic tools, adhesives or property modifiers. We often think of plastics as a bulk, cheap material without appreciating their unique and brilliant properties (which may be why they are causing such a global pollution problem) but they are capable of so much more. A bit of chemistry, a bit of physics, a bit of biology but a lot of

We all think we know what a plastic is. We say 'it's a polymer' as if that explain everything. For me it opens a thousand new materials science questions about architecture, structure, functionality that we are still trying to get our heads around. This is an important topic because they are fascinating materials, but our over-use of them as bulk commodities is doing real ecological harm.

Some specific topics I'd like to focus on are: What are polymers and what do I mean by 'functional?' I'll have a quick look at the underlying colloid science that drives them. Materials characterisation techniques for polymers have come a long way but we still have some major unanswered questions. Do polymers scientists really understand statistics and could this be a problem? I'll look at the interactions between polymers and nanomaterials and the exciting work that can come from that. I'll discuss public policy decisions on recyclable / degradable plastics are complex and will affect us all - we've all heard of microplastics but where do they really come from?

And then, as our group is on coronavirus shutdown, it's topical to talk about our work on infection diagnostics, using the simple functionality of these polymer materials (swelling / deswelling) to isolate and signal specific bacteria.

What can the followers expect in your curation week?

How did you end up in your current research field?

I loved my MSc in Chemistry, and I thought I was done with university. My first job was working for the R&D arm of a paint manufacturer, where I realised more senior managers had a PhD than not. I studied an industrially sponsored PhD in Sheffield (and spent several months working with a flocculant manufacturer) then postdoced at two institutions on clinically based projects developing polymer sensors for microbial infection. As an independent researcher I work closely with local companies, helping explain to them what polymers are and how they can better understand and utilise them. I’m also a very, very close collaborator with Professor Rimmer who has been leading work on an infection sensor for over a decade and maybe, nearly, is ready to spin out?

Originally I am a polymer chemist but I probably have ended up focusing on polymers 'as' functional materials. I compare how changes in their chemical identity change their real properties and usefulness in new applications. I do applied 'industrially focused' work but use every opportunity to go back to the fundamental first principles when I can.

How and where does your research fall in the domain of materials/nano science?

Which research project are you most proud of and could you explain it in simple words in the section we call #InOtherwords?

This is tough... Can I have two answers?

Firstly there is 'that paper'... I think most researchers have one. Some work they did they were really passionate about but it just never got published. For me 'that paper' came out in 2019 and it shows us developing a bacterial sensor that can signal just a few cfu of specific bacteria within 5 minutes of testing. We (hope) an infection diagnostic that we could roll out to pharmacists or hospitals is within our reach. Why did it take 8 years for us to publish? We were 'so far' ahead of ourselves when we did the work we knew we had created brand new problems and 4 other papers had to come out first.

Alternatively there is a really, physics heavy, study on linear poly(acrylic acid) (the stuff you'll find in nappies). We've been using it for over half a century but by tagging it with fluorescent dyes we discovered that the material has completely different properties between 200 and 300 r

I run a Chemistry BSc Apprenticeship - where students study at distance (over the internet) on day release from their companies. We've been teaching almost exclusively at distance for 2 years and I'm busy rolling this out to colleagues struggling with the current coronavirus pandemic. I also teach practical chemistry (lab skills) to first year undergradates, materials characterisation (or how it can so easily go wrong) to masters students and Imaging to a multidisciplinary audience.

If you teach, which are the courses would you like to mention?

If you had 3 wishes to improve your research experience, what would you ask for (not promising anything here!)?

1) I want clear view from the ‘wider’ community – do you know (or even think you know?) what a polymer is? And I say polymer not plastic because they are different. I love doing outreach work but I have to spend the first 3 / 4 minutes building people up. 


2) That the polymer chemistry community started branching out into more 'bizarre' materials characterisation techniques. Fully characterising these materials is expensive and difficult though and we are learning new things all the time.


3) That our group starts to see our infection sensor go to mass release to help the community. I wish we had already shown the use of the bacterial diagnostics to study viruses and fungi... We can, we've been working on this for years, but getting clinical data is slow and expensive. I've been so excited about this collaboration and keen to see it move into general practice.

We were supposed to be moving into a brand new laboratory on Friday; new fume hoods, a glove box, larger offices, now located in the same building as our analytical equipment. However I am writing this on first week of 'working from home' for the current coronavirus - so am looking forward to seeing my children a lot more (although explaining to them that daddy is working will be an experience). So I am looking forward to spending time writing, to getting some grants signed off and focusing on papers with other members of the group. We have a backlog of work that hopefully we can use the next month or so to work through. And a rest will hopefully recharge our batteries, give us some new ideas, and hopefully we’ll charge back into our new labs re-invigorated to get back to work. Oh, and 'if' the world comes back to normal I am assisting with two annual UK conferences this autumn (Recent Appointees in Materials Science, Recent Appointees in Polymer Science). RAMS and RAPS are great conference for postdocs and recently appointed PIs to network in the UK. Fingers crossed the world gets back to some state of normality before then.

What are you most looking forward to in the next 3 months?

Which challenges/questions is the nano/materials science field facing at the moment?

Characterisation. Always characterisation. It's getting better all the time but the temptation (for me as much as everyone) is to stick with a few 'standard' analytical techniques. It is expensive work so of course we will only ever do what we need to do. But if we don't fully disclose our material properties we wont get the best use out of them. Balancing time pressures and limited budgets against the potential for discovery is something I know every researcher battles with.