Research Overview

AMI focuses on research in the domain of soft nanomaterials. The institute strives to be a leader in this area and hosts both fundamental and application-oriented interdisciplinary research programs. Our researchers are currently organized in six research groups, which offer complementary expertise and interests in strategically important areas: BioNanomaterials, Macromolecular Chemistry, Nanoparticles Self-Assembly, Polymer Chemistry and Materials, Soft Matter Physics, and Soft Matter Scattering. Interdisciplinary collaborations between our researchers are the basis for the successful and efficient execution of complex research projects that transcend the boundaries of traditional scientific disciplines.

Research on soft nanomaterials

Soft materials are everywhere – just look around! These materials share the common characteristic of being easily deformable. Examples include liquids, colloids, gels, polymers, foams, and granular matter. Soft materials are the basis for many technological applications where they appear as plastics, rubbers, paints and adhesives, textiles, personal care products, cosmetics, foods, and in many other forms. Soft materials are the very essence of life. Most biological materials – from virtually all parts of plants to blood and animal tissue to milk and honey – are soft. Nature’s materials are usually characterized by an intriguing design complexity and feature hierarchical architectures, whose smallest features are often at the nanoscale and impart the material with unique functionalities. All bionanostructures - from DNA to lipid bilayers to the extracellular matrix to complex hierarchical structures, such as tendon or gecko setae - have in common that they are formed by self-assembly processes. Molecular recognition effects between mutually complementary chemical motifs play a key role in these so-called bottom-up ‘fabrication’ schemes. Nature uses a range of different non-covalent interactions to control the interplay among biopolymers and small molecules in highly specific and very efficient ways. A plethora of supramolecular motifs which can exert precise structural control over matter, ranging from the conformation of individual molecules to the formation of complex hierarchical objects, have evolved.

From fundamental studies to functional materials and applications

At AMI, scientists are combining bio-inspired self-assembly schemes with standard chemical processes for the production of functional nanomaterials with well-defined properties. This approach represents an attractive and generally inexpensive route to nanostructured materials. Our research ranges from the synthesis and in-depth characterization of nanoparticles to fundamental studies that aim to develop a predictive understanding for the interplay between nano-objects and their environment to the fabrication of nanocomposites and nanostructured materials. Complex architectures are created by directed self-assembly that incorporates features of bottom-up and top-down fabrication approaches, for example template-assisted assembly processes or the use of external fields as a means to orient magnetic or charged nanoparticles. The knowledge generated in fundamental studies is applied to work on practical problems of high societal relevance. For example, AMI researchers study the origin of cataract formation, create self-healing polymers, and develop mechanically adaptive materials for biomedical applications.

Interdisciplinary research approach

Over the past decade, nanoscience has established itself as a new field that transcends the interface of the traditional disciplines of physical and materials chemistry, physics, biology, and medicine. To conduct cutting-edge research, interdisciplinary collaboration is not a luxury, but a must. Thus, AMI’s researchers have come together from a broad range of science and engineering disciplines to learn to speak a common language. They already share the same goal: to make AMI a leader in the area of fundamental and applied soft nanoscience and materials science.

Lessons from nature: Nanomaterials through self-assembly

The idea of mimicking Nature’s approach to create artificial nanomaterials through self-assembly of small molecules, macromolecules, or nanoparticles sounds simple and almost naïve: mix the components and let the forces of Nature assemble them into the desired architecture. However, this general framework has been proven to be viable for the fabrication of two- and three-dimensional artificial nanostructures. Examples range from the formation of molecular structures, such as micellar nanocarriers and monolayers, to higher-order architectures built from nanoparticles, nanotubes, or nanofibers. The general approach has become an attractive pathway to a rapidly increasing number of meso- and macroscopic materials and devices ranging from artificial opals to self-assembled electronic circuits.

Adolphe Merkle Institute - Chemin des Verdiers 4 - CH-1700 Fribourg - Phone +41 26 300 9254