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Mechanical Stress Turns These Dendrimers Blue

We all know what happens when materials take too much mechanical stress – they eventually break.

What if you could easily tell when something like a support was close to its maximum stress, before it undergoes a catastrophic event, just by looking at it? One option is to incorporate a mechanochromic polymer, a polymer that changes color when under sufficient mechanical stress, to provide a visual indicator that a material has reached a specific stress threshold. The polymers don’t need to be entirely composed of mechanochromically active moieties to exhibit useful properties; many studies have focused on a single active mechanophore at the center of a large polymer chain. In fact, the mechanical force is greatest at the center of a chain and is directly proportional to the length of the chains. This holds for polymers in solution but hasn’t been extensively studied in the types of bulk systems useful for applications.

Recently, researchers in Japan set out to characterize the effects of chain length and branching on mechanochromic dendrimers, polymers with monodisperse and regularly branched globular structures. Showing that dendrimers exhibit mechanochromism is already a novel result, but their well-defined nature allowed the researchers to draw correlations between structure and bulk responsiveness. They employed diarylbibenzylfuranone (DABBF) as the mechanochromic moiety since it generates arylbenzofuranone (ABF) radicals, which are blue, air-stable, and electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy (EPR) active, when exposed to mechanical force (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Structure of the DABBF moiety and the active ABF radicals generated by its dissociation.

These characteristics allow for straightforward qualitative and quantitative analysis. The team coupled the DABBF moiety with two series of dendrimers, with increasing generations having larger and more highly branched monomer units, to create a range of molecular weights and degrees of branching for study. The dendrimers showed a color change from white to blue (Figure 2) when ground in a ball mill, which was used to ensure the reproducibility of the force applied to all samples.

Figure 2. Photographs of the first (top) and second (bottom) mechanochromic dendrimers before and after grinding, showing the color change associated with the generation of ABF radicals.

EPR measurements confirmed the presence of the ABF radicals in the samples after milling, demonstrating that the color change is due to the cleavage of the DABBF. The integrated EPR spectra were used to quantitatively determine the percentage of DABBF moieties that dissociated. The responsiveness of the dendrimers increased exponentially with increasing generation and branching. However, the primary factor governing ABF generation was found to be molecular weight. Two dendrimers with different levels of chain entanglement, but similar molecular weights, exhibited comparable cleavage ratios.  The question then became does molecular weight increase the transfer efficiency of force to the DABBF or does the increased steric bulk make it harder for the ABF radicals to recombine? To probe the kinetics of this process, the researchers varied the grinding time and saw that within 5 minutes all the highly branched samples reached their maximum dissociation level. Additionally, monitoring the ABF recombination showed that even after 6 hours approximately 95% of the radicals remained dissociated in all 3rd and 4th generation dendrimers. These data suggest that the enhancement in responsiveness can be attributed to better force transmission to the DABBF.

This work shows mechanoresponsiveness in a range of dendrimers with varying degrees of branching and rigidity. Not only did they demonstrate novel activity, but the researchers also probed the mechanism of the enhanced activity with increasing molecular weight. This initial study opens avenues to explore polymer rigidity, surface functionality, and other dendrimer features to design new, functional materials.

To find out more, please read:

Mechanochromic dendrimers: the relationship between primary structure and mechanochromic properties in the bulk

Takuma Watabe, Kuniaki Ishizuki, Daisuke Aoki, and Hideyuki Otsuka

Chem. Commun., 2019, 55, 6831-6834.

About the blogger:

Beth Mundy is a PhD candidate in chemistry in the Cossairt lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. Her research focuses on developing new and better ways to synthesize nanomaterials for energy applications. She is often spotted knitting in seminars or with her nose in a good book. You can find her on Twitter at @BethMundySci.

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Guiding Light with Molecular Crystals

We’re all used to communications and computing happening at high, and seemingly ever-increasing speeds. Continuing on this trajectory requires the development of materials capable of acting as micro/nanoscale waveguides that don’t experience interference effects from strong external electromagnetic fields. Molecular crystals represent an exciting but relatively under-explored materials class due to their inherently limited emission and absorption properties. However, an international group of researchers recently combined two different crystalline materials with complementary optical properties in a filled-hollow crystal architecture, involving no binding materials or polymer matrices.

Figure 1. Spectra and structure of DCA (left) and PDI (right).

The group used 9,10-dicyanoanthracine (DCA) as the hollow outer crystal, with a perylene diimide derivative (PDI) as the interior compound (Figure 1). When combined, these two compounds exhibit fluorescence that covers the visible and near-IR portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. The researchers grew hollow crystals of DCA with diameters ranging from 50-400 μm in diameter with pores of 10-200 μm and filled them with 1-50 μm PDI crystal fibrils manually by hand(!) (Figure 2) (I honestly can’t imagine how many crystals ended up broken during that experimental learning curve!). The assembled structure for study had a single hollow DCA crystal filled with 18 individual PDI fibrils to create the waveguide.

Figure 2. Schematic of hollow crystal architecture (top) with demonstration of construction (bottom).

When the researchers excited the full structure with a 365 nm continuous wavelength LED, both crystal components emitted light that was guided down to the opposite end. The specific makeup of the spectrum depends on the point of illumination; only the excited compounds emit. This supports the active waveguiding capabilities of the materials. The emissive properties can also be controlled by changing the excitation wavelengths to exclude the absorbance of one of the molecular crystals. PDI can be selectively excited using light above 550 nm and both PDI and DCA act simply as passive waveguides for light in the infrared region of the spectrum, of particular importance for wireless communication. This study represents an exciting next step for organic molecular materials as optical waveguides with a new architecture for devices.

To find out more please read:

A filled organic crystal as a hybrid large-bandwidth optical waveguide

Luca Catalano, Patrick Commins, Stefan Schramm, Durga Prasad Karothu, Rachid Rezgui, Kawther Hadef and Panče Naumov

Chem. Commun, 2019, 55, 4921-4924.

About the blogger:

Beth Mundy is a PhD candidate in chemistry in the Cossairt lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. Her research focuses on developing new and better ways to synthesize nanomaterials for energy applications. She is often spotted knitting in seminars or with her nose in a good book. You can find her on Twitter at @BethMundySci.

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Targeting the Powerhouse of the Cell to Fight Cancer

Everyone knows that cancer as a disease is awful, but the side effects of currently utilized chemotherapies have their own horrors. Research into natural products as therapies have found some promising compounds, but they face barriers to practical use in patients. One particular molecule, artesunate (ART), recently showed high potential for anticancer activity when in the presence of iron. Unfortunately, ART has major problems that limit its current applicability, including low solubility in water and high instability in biologically relevant conditions.

One approach to get around these issues is to encapsulate the drug (pun intended) in a nanoparticle-based carrier. A carrier with a hydrophobic interior and hydrophilic exterior can bring higher concentrations of drugs with low solubility into a cell and protect them from deleterious conditions in the body. An additional benefit is the relative ease of incorporating targeting ligands into the particles during synthesis. This allows the drugs to only interact with specific cells or, in this specific case, the mitochondria within cells.

Figure 1. Schematic of the nanoparticle synthesis process complete with targeting ligand molecules. The anticancer agent is activated in the presence of iron.

Researchers in China have prepared approximately 200 nm nanoparticle carriers for ART (Figure 1) using triphenyl phosphonium (TPP) as a mitochondrial targeting ligand. These nanoparticles remained stable in biologically relevant conditions for a week, sufficient for in-vitro studies. The studies showed significant decreases in cancer cell growth when the nanoparticles were used compared to the ART alone. The nanoparticles with TPP on the surface showed the highest efficacy, particularly when coupled with iron treatment to activate the ART.

Figure 2. Images of cells exposed to nanoparticles with (bottom) and without (top) a targeting ligand filled with different fluorescent dyes. The increased brightness corresponds to higher uptake of the nanoparticles by the cells.

To further investigate the cell uptake pathway of the nanoparticles, the researchers added fluorescent dye molecules to the inside of the particles. Once the cells took up and ruptured the nanoparticles, the dyes were released and became visible to the researchers (Figure 2). The fluorescence was twice as great in cells exposed to the nanoparticles treated with the TPP targeting ligand, showing its value for cell uptake. The researchers also used fluorescent dyes that react with reactive oxygen species (ROSs), as their generation is how ART kills cancer cells. The in-vitro studies showed an over three-fold increase in fluorescence from reactions with ROSs which, combined with data showing higher rates of cell death, supports the increased activity of ART when combined with this nanoparticle architecture.

To find out more please read:

A mitochondria targeting artesunate prodrug-loaded nanoparticle exerting anticancer activity via iron-mediated generation of the reactive oxygen species

Zhigang Chen, Xiaoxu Kang, Yixin Wu, Haihua Xiao, Xuzi Cai, Shihou Seng, Xuefeng Wang and Shiguo Chen

Chem. Commun., 2019, 55, 4781 – 4784.

About the blogger:

 

Beth Mundy is a PhD candidate in chemistry in the Cossairt lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. Her research focuses on developing new and better ways to synthesize nanomaterials for energy applications. She is often spotted knitting in seminars or with her nose in a good book. You can find her on Twitter at @BethMundySci.

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Using Carbon to Make a Better Solar Cell

Maybe I’m stating the obvious, but solar cells are incredibly complex devices with more components than just the light absorber.

While the focus on the active layer by chemists looking to develop new materials is understandable, in order to truly create next-generation solar cells the other components of the architecture must be improved.  Creating the crack-resistant or resilient layers necessary for functional flexible solar cells is a major challenge currently being addressed. These new materials and approaches also need to work within the general framework of fabrication techniques used for the other layers – ideally at low temperature and solution processible.

An often-neglected piece of the puzzle is the electrode. Electrodes are traditionally composed of a thin metal layer, which is often vapor deposited at high temperatures and low pressures. This class of electrodes is expensive, susceptible to degradation, and can damage the critical hole transport or active layers. One emerging alternative is carbon-based electrodes, applied as pastes. These low-cost, highly stable, and hydrophobic materials are attractive given their compatibility with emerging photovoltaic technologies, particularly perovskites. Their broad application has been limited by the necessity of toxic solvents to create the pastes, but researchers in China have developed a low-temperature, highly conductive carbon paste that can be screen printed onto perovskite solar cells without using toxic solvents.

Fabrication schematic and cross sectional SEM for a perovskite solar cell with a carbon electrode

Figure 1. (a) Fabrication schematic for perovskite solar cells with carbon electrodes and hole transport layers. (b) Cross sectional SEM image of a device.

Not only are the solvents more environmentally friendly compared to those previously used, they also increase the mechanical strength of the final film and, under fabrication conditions, do not damage the perovskite active layer or organic hole transport layer. While the hole transport layer isn’t strictly necessary to create a working device, it has been shown to increase the champion efficiency from 11.7% to 14.55%. This is likely due to poor contact between the perovskite and carbon electrode, which the thin hole transport layer (PEDOT:PSS) helps remedy.

Carbon-based electrode undergoing a bending test and sheet resistivity data

Figure 2. (a) A sample undergoing a bending test. (b) The electrode sheet resistance before and after 100 bends.

The most exciting aspect of these electrodes is their resilience when subjected to a bending test. After 100 bends, the researchers saw no visible film damage or increase in the sheet resistance when compared to the initial sample. Actual flexible solar cells fabricated and studied did show a decrease in performance after 1,000 bends, but this was attributed to known robustness issues in the base ITO layer. This work with carbon-based electrode materials could lead to simpler manufacturing for fabricating perovskite solar cells at a commercial level.

 

To find out more please read:

A low-temperature carbon electrode with good perovskite compatibility and high flexibility in carbon based perovskite solar cells

Shiyu Wang, Pei Jiang, Wenjian Shen, Anyi Mei, Sixing Xiong, Xueshi Jiang, Yaoguang Rong, Yiwen Tang, Yue Hu & Hongwei Han

Chem. Commun., 2019, 55, 2765-2768

This article is also part of the Chemical CommunicationsPerovskites‘ themed collection.

About the blogger:

 

Beth Mundy is a PhD candidate in chemistry in the Cossairt lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. Her research focuses on developing new and better ways to synthesize nanomaterials for energy applications. She is often spotted knitting in seminars or with her nose in a good book. You can find her on Twitter at @BethMundySci.

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