Anyone want to knit a microscopic sweater?

Rod-shaped molecules can organize themselves by, say, lining up like sardines or grouping

into distinct layers when they form orderly fluids known as liquid crystals. If exposed to ultraviolet

(UV) light or heat, the molecules of some liquid crystals self-organize in a second way:

They link into long chains called polymers.

Now, scientists investigating such materials have accidentally created microscopic polymer

tubes that tangle themselves into clumps that resemble balls of yarn, report Pavel A. Kossyrev

and Gregory P. Crawford of Brown University in Providence, R.I.

“We were actually just trying to align the liquid crystals … [but] ended up with this weird,

yarn-ball thing,” Crawford says. “It was totally unexpected.”

These bundles, described in the Dec. 4 Applied Physics Letters, represent more than just a

new type of polymer structure, Kossyrev explains. The balls behave in an unusual, possibly

useful way: In strong electric fields, they flatten out and partially unravel to form a flat, overlapping

pattern of loops. It’s as if “you took a piece of [cooked] spaghetti and threw it on the

table,” Kossyrev says.

“There are some neat things that one can propose to do with these,” says Joe B. Whitehead

of the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. For example, they could be used for

controlling drug delivery by being loaded with medicine and then unfurled electrically.

To make the balls, Kossyrev and Crawford deposited diacrylate molecules on the inner,

cylindrical walls of pores in a membrane. After adding the fatty molecule lecithin, which

adjusted the diacrylate molecules’ orientations, the scientists solidified the mixture with UV

light. Finally, they dissolved the membrane with caustic soda. Hollow polymeric threads that

had formed in the now-vanished pores immediately tangled up into balls.

“Without lecithin, you don’t see any winding,” Kossyrev notes. Lecithin molecules shrink

from the water in the caustic solution, crumpling the 60-micrometer-long tubes into balls a few

micrometers in diameter, about the size of a sperm cell. An electric field introduces into the

thread a separation of charge that makes the structure flatten out.

In the drive to create nanotechnology (SN: 3/1/97, p. S14:, many researchers are exploring

molecules that assemble themselves into useful structures. By using a membrane’s pores for

this process, Whitehead notes, this new work may open additional routes to that goal.

More Stories from Science News on Materials Science