Love-Hate Relationship for Oil and Water

Love-Hate Relationship for Oil and Water

Love-Hate Relationship for Oil and Water

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee tracked polymer self-assembly at the liquid-liquid interface in real time. Credit: Michelle Lehman/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy.

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee achieved a rare look at the inner workings of polymer self-assembly at an oil-water interface to advance materials for neuromorphic computing and bio-inspired technologies.

Results published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society provide new insights on the way molecules pack and order themselves into “tunable” interfaces, monolayer thick surfaces with structures that can be modified for specific functionalities.


“Understanding the design rules of the chemistry happening at the liquid-liquid interface ultimately informs how we can make new materials with custom properties,” said Benjamin Doughty of ORNL’s Chemical Sciences Division.


The study expands interest in using soft materials to mimic lipid bilayers — selective membranes with important biological functions, such as processing signals across the brain’s neural network and transporting ions, proteins, and other molecules across cells.


Co-authors previously designed biomimetic membranes using lipid-coated water droplets in oil and demonstrated their potential as sensory components for neuromorphic, or brain-like, computers with natural information processing, learning and memory.


“Because lipids are inherently fragile and decay, we are interested in developing polymer-based counterparts that offer stability and can also give us a range of natural functionalities,” said Pat Collier of ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, a DOE Office of Science User Facility.


Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee tracked polymer self-assembly at the liquid-liquid interface in real time. Credit: Michelle Lehman/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy


Without the knowledge of interfacial chemistry, however, creating functional bilayers from natural or synthetic molecules involves a certain degree of mystery. Chemical species interacting in a beaker of solution may or may not form analogous membranes with selective properties, such as the capability to store or filter sensory impulses that make up the nondigital language of neuromorphic computing.


“To be able to train molecules for specific purposes and unlock new functionalities, we need to understand what is happening on a molecular level during self-assembly,” Collier said.


For the experiment, researchers chose an oligomer, a small polymer variant with a similar structure to natural lipids, and used surface spectroscopy methods to probe the molecular monolayer — one side of a bilayer — formed between water and oil.


The ORNL team is one of only a few groups that has probed the liquid-liquid interface, an important area of research, but understudied because of technical challenges.


“Our goal was to investigate how the asymmetry at the oil-water interface causes species to adsorb differently, to pack and order into a functional design,” Doughty said.