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Wang’s NSF CAREER award will unlock low-cost polymers for soft robotics

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Wang using special equipment to examine materials
William Wang works in his laboratory

Xiaoguang (William) Wang, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, is working to revolutionize the soft robotics field with the development of low-cost and biocompatible shape-changing polymers.

His research has earned a $666,742 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The CAREER award is the NSF’s most prestigious award in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of both. Wang’s project, “Controlling Chain Conformation in Amorphous Polymers through Soft Nanoscale Confinement” is funded by NSF’s Polymers Program.

Wang’s research objective is to utilize novel material synthesis, molecular and colloidal self-assembly, characterization, and microfabrication to create dynamic and anisotropic material systems that exhibits elementary sensors, actuators and electronics in response to external cues via the reconfiguration of its shape, optical and physicochemical properties. 

"My expertise is understanding what's going on in molecular scale and converting such events into micro-/macro- materials systems with desired functionality," Wang said. "For instance, I can propose a bio-diagnosis approach inspired by looking at the tears of wine in the glass. One main direction of my research focuses on liquid crystals, the materials that have been widely used in TVs and cell phones. My goal is to explore their novel applications beyond display technology. I also have particular interests in shape-changing polymers and green energy harvesting."

Polymers play a crucial role in our everyday lives, particularly those with inherent crystalline structures that are widely used in soft robotics, artificial muscles, energy and biomedical applications. However, some of the most widely used polymers—such as those used in disposable cups or food containers—lack any sort of crystallinity, which prevents their use in advanced applications. Wang’s research seeks to transform low-cost, non-crystalline polymers into functional actuators and soft robotics through a unique process of polymerization in liquid crystal solvents.

“The current design of stimuli-responsive, shape-changing polymers relies on polymers with intrinsic crystallinity, such that the chains neatly pack together like uncooked spaghetti,” said Wang. “This packing usually requires specific molecular motifs found in semicrystalline polymers and liquid crystalline polymers. However, the monomers required to create these polymers are either expensive or require complicated synthesis procedures. Additionally, many of these polymers are toxic and unsuitable for bio-related applications, such as implants in the body.”

Wang’s project will significantly broaden the monomer library for biocompatible soft robotics polymers and produce an innovative technology that will aid in the rational design and chemical upcycling of conventional, lower-value non-crystalline polymers that are normally unable to exhibit reversible shape changes. Results will reveal entirely new ways to utilize non-reactive liquid crystal solvents to introduce stretching and alignment to the chains of non-crystalline polymers.

“We anticipate that this work will generate design methods critical to the creation of a new class of easily synthesized, shape changing polymers that can be derived from commodity monomers,” he said.

Additionally, considering the tremendous switch from liquid crystal displays (LCDs) to light emitting diode (LED) displays, Wang’s project will expand the potential utility of liquid crystals from display technology into material synthesis, which will provide an outlet for the existing liquid crystal industry and will draw future resources to these fascinating liquid crystal materials.

Wang (center) in his lab with graduate students Meng Zhang (left) and Robert Dupont.
Wang (center)  and graduate students Meng Zhang (left) and Robert Dupont hold samples of their work

A significant aspect of this project also incorporates various integrated educational and outreach activities. This project will provide research training in soft matter for graduate and undergraduate students, offer laboratory experience for high school students, and raise public awareness of soft materials through various educational programs.

Wang joined the William G. Lowrie Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at The Ohio State University as a tenure-track assistant professor in January 2019. Wang earned his bachelor’s and master’s in chemical engineering from Zhejiang University, China, and his PhD in chemical engineering from University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

He recently became a core faculty member of the Sustainability Institute. When asked how he became interested in his field of research, he said, "I feel uncomfortable if I have been asked to work on something like a Pandora’s Box that I have no idea how it works fundamentally. In my PhD, I picked up a textbook on Condensed Matter Physics by accident, and I was deeply attracted by molecular-level events because they can explain all the phenomena happening in the daily life! Then I felt that it would be super cool if we could use our understanding to tune the macroscopic property of the materials based on what people really need."

Additional achievements

Wang earned previous NSF funding in 2023 to support his research exploring the innovative use of liquid crystals in additive manufacturing.

In 2022, he received two important recognitions from Essential Science Indicators. In addition to winning the ESI Top Article Award, another one of his papers was selected for inclusion on the list of ESI Highly Cited Papers, which means that the paper was ranked among the top 1% of Wang's academic field, which is Materials Science.

Also in 2022, he was selected for participation in the prestigious Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Risers project, which focuses on up-and-coming researchers whose work is related to national security and demonstrates the potential to lead to technological breakthroughs. The project also included a DARPA Forward conference featuring two days of presentations and panels by leading researchers, innovators and defense leaders. Wang presented research on the design of nanomaterials for absorption and conversion of radiant energy.

Based on a story by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu

Category: Grad Students