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: