Partnerships for International Research and Education

Researchers from the Adolphe Merkle Institute (AMI) at the University of Fribourg, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland (USA), and the University of Chicago (USA), backed by two grants from the US and Swiss National Science Foundations, are developing functional materials that are inspired by some of the most desirable substances found in nature. 

Faculty and students at the different institution will study and develop materials that mimic materials such as the sticky and durable caddisfly silk, the adaptable skin of sea cucumbers, and a substance that directs cellular behavior. The bioinspired materials produced in the project will ultimately be tested in soft robots, but they are expected to have a wide range of other practical uses.

A $5.5 Mio grant, awarded on September 1, 2017, by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of the Partnerships for International Research and Education program (PIRE), supports the research and training activities at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Chicago. The corresponding actions in Fribourg are supported by a complementary CHF 1.5 million grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), which became effective September 19. This is the first time that the SNSF is participating as a partnering agency.

PIRE  is a programme run by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US. The NSF funds all areas of science and engineering except for areas funded by the National Health Institute (NIH). PIRE aims at promoting excellent science and building research capacities through international collaboration. The primary goal of PIRE is to support high quality projects in which advances in research and education could not occur without international collaboration. PIRE seeks to catalyze a higher level of international engagement in the US science and engineering community. These international partnerships are considered by the US funding agency as essential to addressing critical science and engineering problems.

In all, 12 faculty members from Case Western Reserve University, two from the University of Chicago and six from the AMI, and 15 PhD students (10 in the US, five in Switzerland) will contribute to the program. A key element of the US-Swiss collaboration is the exchange of students at all levels.  In addition to the PhD students, who will conduct a portion of their research in the respective partner country, the program will expand the exchange of bachelor students through internship programs in Cleveland and Fribourg.

Materials used in this project will be tested in a worm-like robot that may one day burrow through the earth or building wreckage on search-and rescue-missions, crawl inside waterlines and oil and gas pipelines to inspect them and, if miniaturized, deliver a stent or remove plaque by crawling through a blood vessel.

The Swiss team is led by Christoph Weder, Professor of Polymer Chemistry and Materials, and Director of the Adolphe Merkle Institute, as well as of the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Bio-Inspired Materials.  According to Weder, the training activities established by this PIRE complement and integrate with the student exchange programs and other training activities established by the NCCR, which is also headquartered at the University of Fribourg.

The research focuses on five areas:

  • LaShanda Korley, Climo Associate Professor of macromolecular science and engineering at Case Western Reserve University and principal investigator on the project, Stuart Rowan, Professor of molecular engineering and chemistry at the University of Chicago, and AMI’s Nico Bruns, Professor of Macromolecular Chemistry, and Ulrich Steiner, Professor of Soft Matter Physics, lead the effort to develop nanocomposite materials. The materials will be based on spider silk, which, by weight and size, is far stronger than steel cables. They will also be based on caddisfly silk, a powerful and durable adhesive that underwater larvae use to build nets to capture food and glue together pebbles, shells and sticks for shelters.
  • Jeffrey Capadona, Associate Professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve, Rowan and AMI’s Christoph Weder lead the study of materials inspired by the sea cucumber, squid beak, and pine cone, which would allow the robot to adapt to different environments and tasks. The sea cucumber’s skin is typically soft and pliable, but can become rigid as a defense mechanism against predators. The tip of the squid beak can cut through muscle and bone, but the fleshy part near the squid’s mouth is 100 times softer. The pinecone opens in dry air and closes when wet.
  • Gary Wnek, the Joseph F. Toot Jr. Professor of Engineering and professor of macromolecular science and engineering at Case Western Reserve, and Michael Mayer, AMI Professor of Biophysics, lead the efforts to build artificial neurons to control a robot. They and other collaborators will investigate the use polyelectrolyte fibers and gels that can carry an electric current or respond to magnetic fields.
  • Jon Pokorski, assistant professor of macromolecular science and engineering at Case Western Reserve, Alke Fink and Barbara Rothen-Rutishauser, Professors of BioNanomaterials at AMI, lead the development of mechanically adaptable functional fibers. They aim to mimic the extracellular matrix’s ability to provide adaptive structural and biochemical support to cells, enabling surrounding cells to differentiate or migrate to heal wounds.
  • Case Western Reserve’s Roger Quinn, the Arthur P. Armington Professor of Engineering and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Hillel Chiel, Professor of Biology, lead testing and coordinating the materials and controls in the worm robot.

AMI participants