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Scientists create wrinkled polymer 'skin'

Wrinkled hard skin on polymer surface induced by focused ion beam. The wrinkles are hierarchical with the primary wavelength of 465 nm.
Wrinkled hard skin on polymer surface induced by focused ion beam. The wrinkles are hierarchical with the primary wavelength of 465 nm.
Photo courtesy / Moon et al.

Scientists, including one affiliated with MIT, have demonstrated a new method for developing wrinkled hard skins on polymers using a focused ion beam.

The technique has potential use for biological sensors and microfluidic devices, and it may offer new ways to build custom-made cell templates for tissue engineering.

The work, a collaboration among researchers at Harvard University, Seoul National University and MIT, was published in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers have also filed for a U.S. patent covering the discovery.

By controlling the direction and intensity of the ion beam, the researchers literally sculpted patterns on flat areas of polydimethylsiloxane, a silicon-based organic polymer more commonly known as the primary ingredient in Silly Putty.

"This technique is a one-step process for creating wrinkled skins," said Ashkan Vaziri, a research affiliate in MIT's Biological Engineering Division and a lecturer and research associate at Harvard. "The method is more robust compared with traditional techniques. The patterns can be generated along desired paths by simply controlling the relative movement of the ion beam and polymeric substrate. It's almost like using an airbrush on fabric. At a smaller scale the desired morphology of wrinkles can be achieved by controlling the ion beam intensity."

Because only the areas exposed to the beam are affected, the method enabled the scientists to create a variety of patterns--from simple one-dimensional wrinkles to peculiar and complex hierarchical nested wrinkles--along desired paths. Specific examples to date include "S" shapes, circular patterns and long horizontal channels akin to the repeating tines of a closed zipper.

"Irradiation by the ion beam alters the chemical composition of the polymer close to its surface and forms a thin stiff skin which wants to expand," said Vaziri. "The consequent mismatch between the mechanical strain of the generated stiff skin and the underlying polymeric substrate, almost like a tug-of-war, buckles the skin and forms the wrinkle patterns."

Such patterns can be used in the construction of microfluidic devices for particle separation and mixture and also have potential use in designing biosensors. The researchers have also started a close collaboration with scientists at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology aimed at exploring the behavior of living cells on these patterned substrates. Such research may lead to the development of an effective and robust method to build custom templates for engineering and growing tissues.

Vaziri's co-authors are Professor John Hutchinson and Myoung-Woon Moon of Harvard, and Sang Hoon Lee, Jeong-Yun Sun and Kyu Hwan Oh, all from Seoul National University.

The research was supported in part by the Korea Research Foundation, the Center for Advanced Materials Processing of the 21st Century Frontier R&D Program, the Office of Naval Research and Harvard Engineering and Applied Sciences.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 28, 2007 (download PDF).

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