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Changing Surfaces from Sticky to Slippery Using Light - New Technology

June19th 2006

Changing Surfaces from Sticky to Slippery - New Technology

Georges Belfort

Researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a surface that can be switched from sticky to slippery when exposed to light.  The scientists call these surfaces “optically switchable”.  The material’s surface characteristics are altered when exposed to ultra-violet light.

Scientists are using synthetic polymer membrane in a variety of applications.  They call this new science “bioseparation”.  Bioseparation is a filtering process of specific proteins from complex liquid mixtures of biological molecules.  The proteins usually stick to the membranes, clogging up their pores and severely limiting their performance.

Georges Belfort, the Russell Sage Professor of Chemical Engineering at Rensselaer and corresponding author of the paper, says “We asked ourselves, can one use light to help the proteins hop on and hop off? We have shown that when one changes light, the proteins don’t stick as well.”


The research, which appears in the June 19 issue of the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition, could have a wide variety of applications.  Some of the applications being considered right now are a protein filter for biological mixtures to a tiny valve on a “lab-on-a-chip.”

Belfort makes the materials by attaching spiropyran molecules to an industrial polymer, poly (ether sulfone). Spiropyrans are a group of light-switchable organic molecules that exist in a colorless, “closed” form under visible light, but switch to a reddish-purple, “open” form when exposed to UV light. This change leads to an alteration of the new material’s polarity, or the chemical structure of its atoms.

The process is not considered complicated.  Belfort says “We used a relatively simple two-step process that could be easily incorporated into a commercial manufacturing process. The relative ease of this grafting and switching process suggests many industrial opportunities.”

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