Research Magazine- Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science - The University of Texas at Dallas

Research on Smart Materials Gets a Big Boost


Dr. Taylor Ware PhD’13, assistant professor of bioengineering in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, is taking ingenious approaches to examining smart materials.

His research has received a big boost with funding from both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Air Force.

The NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award is highly-selective and supports early career researchers who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars and offers a unique opportunity for junior faculty to jump start independent research.

Ware’s research project, titled “Designing Microscale, Shape-Morphing Liquid Crystal Elastomers as Tissue Adhesives,” will receive nearly $500,000 over the next five years.

Ware aims to design smart materials that can stick to the soft, wet, and moving tissues of the human body. While traditional glues rely on chemical bonds, these new adhesives will rely on mechanical bonding, similar to how Velcro works. Whereas Velcro always sticks to fabric, these materials will use shape changing structures about the size of a human hair to switch on and off the adhesion to soft tissue. The adhesives could be used in devices that are intended to heal wounds and deliver drugs. To achieve this goal, Ware will investigate the use of liquid crystal elastomers – which are like rubbery materials that undergo controlled shape change on heating and cooling. Currently, the use of these materials is limited in biomedical applications – limitations that Ware hopes to overcome.

“The challenges in using liquid crystal elastomers are not small: the transition temperature of these materials is currently too high for use in biomedical applications; shape change is difficult to program in 3D microscale structures; and, the biodegradability of these materials is uncontrolled,” Ware said.

Ware and his research lab, which is concerned principally with creating smart materials, will tackle these issues one by one.

First, they must synthesize liquid crystal elastomers with other materials that offer controlled biodegradability. These smart materials must then be modified so that they change shape at more suitable temperatures and in such a way that they better adhere to model tissues.

Polymer Theory Image

Left to right: Patrick Ondrusek, a biomedical engineering junior, Ware and Ambulo discuss a liquid crystal elastomers polymerization reaction.

“If successful, this work will engender broader impact in society by enabling a novel class of soft tissue adhesives,” Ware said. “Soft tissue adhesives are needed for a wide variety of medical devices from wound healing aides to internal drug delivery patches, where intimate and persistent contact with soft tissues is critical.

For example, a common cause of postoperative pain and recurrence in hernia prolapse repair surgeries can be attributed to poor adhesion between soft tissues and supporting devices.

Listen to Dr. Ware’s Interview with KERA on Smart Adhesives

“Nearly 1 million of these interventions are performed in the U.S. each year. As such, improved tissue adhesives are a critical missing component to reducing health care-related costs and improving quality of life,” he said.

Ware’s research also is supported by a Young Investigator Research Program (YIP) grant that he received in 2017 from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The grant provides $360,000 over three years.

Ware’s YIP project, “Designing Microstructure in Ordered Polymer Actuators,” also seeks to improve the nature of liquid crystal elastomers. In this work, Ware hopes to synthesize liquid crystal polymers that are capable of both changing shape and carrying a heavy load.

One of Ware’s PhD students was lead author on a paper that emerged from the YIP-funded research. Cedric Paul Ambulo and a team of authors – Ware included – penned the article ”Four-Dimensional Printing of Liquid Crystal Elastomers” in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

“In this paper, we demonstrated the ability to fabricate shape-morphing 3D structures using liquid crystal elastomers,” Ambulo said. “We employed the use of shear forces associated with direct write extrusion to program the liquid crystal molecules within the structure which influences shape-change.”

Ambulo also won the Soft Matter poster prize at the International Liquid Crystal Elastomer Conference in Houston, Texas, in 2017.

“We are working hard in our research lab,” Ware said. “This support from both the NSF and Air Force has allowed us to investigate projects that, if successful, will develop a fundamental understanding on how to manipulate these materials for better performance in both health care and defense.”

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