Academy Professor Olli Ikkala received seven-figure EU funding

07.02.2012

The European Research Council granted Aalto University’s Academy Professor Olli Ikkala funding in the amount of €2.3 million for research on biomimetic nanomaterials. Ikkala’s group specialises in the self-assembly of macromolecules and how to make use of this process when producing functional materials.

The interests of Ikkala's group focus on the self-assembled strong and light nanocomposite structures found in nature, such as the nacreous matter underneath seashells and biological fibres resembling silk and nanocellulose. Several strong natural materials are built from both strong parallel elements and softening and viscosifying macromolecules. All sizes of structures form to combine opposite properties: strength and viscosity.

Professori Olli Ikkala

In terms of materials science, it is intriguing to identify the physical causes of specific properties and to produce equivalent structures and functions. Natural materials have formed in the long course of evolution, and their production is both slow and extremely expensive. Biomimetics therefore studies ways of mimicking natural material formation.

– In nature, materials are often stiff, strong, viscous and light at the same time. Designing materials of this kind is extremely difficult, but we have made progress by studying nature, says Academy Professor Olli Ikkala.

The applications aim at technological production, but Ikkala notes that applications will only arise through a theoretical understanding of the nanostructures.

– Eventually, the aim is at designing new materials even better than the ones found in nature, with new combinations of properties, says Ikkala.

Ikkala's group has already succeeded in producing a variety of nanomaterials.

– We aim to mimic the properties of seashells and silk, for example. A little over a year ago, we were the first ones in the world to introduce a strong and lightweight nacre-mimetic material that is quite easy to produce. An important scientific dilemma is to find out how viscosifying polymers behave in nano size. We have also produced new kinds of flexible and functional, ultralight and porous materials, i.e., aerogels.

Material properties become gradually clearer

The research of the properties of biomimetic nanocomposites is based on finding out the initial materials of self-assembly. Initial material may include, for example, nano platelets, polymers, new forms of carbon, surfactants and nanocellulose.

– Cellulose is especially interesting, as it is the most common polymer in the world and it is produced in our renewable forests. In terms of strength, nano-sized cellulose fibres are comparable to metals, which was the very offset of interest in using nanocellulose in the design of strong self-assembled biomimetic materials, Ikkala says.

- Silk is a textbook example of a mechanically excellent fible, albeit expensive. We have the know-how for producing it through microbiological and genetic means, but the production costs still remain high.

The causes of the superb mechanical properties of silk are still not fully known, so we have barely made a start with its biomimetics.

We study the spinned biomimetic fibres and membranes that are based on the self-assembly of nanocellulose and macromolecules. We continuously combine cumulative knowledge on the structures that affect the properties of silk and other biological materials, Ikkala says.

With the funding granted by the European Research Council, the group will also be able to study how biomimetic materials can be steered by controlling them externally – from hard to soft, and back.

– Globally speaking, material haptics, i.e., the contact behaviour of materials is currently under intense research. The Laboratory of Molecular Materials studies how the mechanical properties of materials can be steered, Ikkala explains.

– Considering the heavy competition for the research funding of the European Research Council, applications must be outstanding both in terms of scientific content and the framework. I was able to concentrate on the scientific content with our application, as I received considerable support from Aalto University’s competent research funding application service, which began operation less than a year ago, Ikkala says. Also in general, it is essential that researchers be trained for the tricks related to applying EU funding.

More information:
Academy Professor Olli Ikkala
+358 50 4100454
olli.ikkala [at] aalto [dot] fi

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