Chemistry in confined spaces

Nature inspires chemists with abilities to develop strategies for stabilizing ephemeral chemical species, performing chemical reactions with unprecedented rates and selectivities, and synthesizing complex molecules and exquisite inorganic nanostructures. What natural systems consistently exploit—which is yet fundamentally different from how chemists perform reactions—is the aspect of nanoscale confinement. Our research focuses on studying the behavior of chemical species within various types of nanoconfined environments, including surfaces of colloidal nanoparticles, cavities within coordination cages, and nanopores within porous materials (such as porous aromatic frameworks). We also develop novel families of synthetic materials featuring confined spaces; examples include reversibly self-assembling colloidal crystals (“dynamic nanoflasks”), bowl-shaped metallic nanoparticles, and non–close-packed nanoparticle superlattices.

While these objectives are predominantly fundamental, they can also generate an array of applications. Our ultimate goals are as diverse as preparing a new family of inverse opals, studying protein folding inside “artificial chaperones”, and controlling polymerization reactions according to the size and shape of the “nanoflask”. We believe that studying chemistry under nanoconfinement has the potential to teach us novel ways to perform chemical reactions, paving the way to discovery of new phenomena and unique structures.

Representative publications

Self-assembly at the nanoscale

Inorganic nanoparticles (i.e., particles in the size range 1–100 nm) exhibit a wide range of fascinating physicochemical properties, including light upconversion, superparamagnetism, and localized plasmon resonance (which gives rise to the wine-red color of colloidal suspensions of gold nanoparticles). Development of functional materials from inorganic nanoparticles, however, requires a precise control over the self-assembly of individual nanoparticles into higher-ordered structures. We are therefore studying how nanoparticles interact with each other, and ultimately how we can use this information as a tool to generate complex nanomaterials with efficiency and precision. For example, by combining short- and long-range forces of different symmetries, we can assemble simple cubic nanoparticles into complex double-helical superstructures. In parallel, we are also interested in exploiting controlled chemical transformations of nanoparticle assemblies as a conceptually new strategy for developing novel functional nanomaterials.

Representative publications

Stimuli-responsive materials

Living organisms are sophisticated self-assembled structures that exist and operate far from thermodynamic equilibrium. These systems remain stable at highly organized (low-entropy) states owing to the continuous consumption of energy stored in “chemical fuels”, which is eventually converted into low-energy waste. This so-called dissipative self-assembly is ubiquitous in nature, where it gives rise to complex structures and properties such as self-healing, homeostasis, and camouflage. In sharp contrast, nearly all man-made materials are static: they are designed to serve a given purpose rather than to exhibit different properties dependent on external conditions.

In our research, we are developing design principles for systems capable of reversible, dynamic, and dissipative self-assembly. We employ novel, unconventional approaches based on integrating organic and nanoparticulated building blocks into hybrid structures, which can be programmed to self-assemble into larger structures and, ultimately, materials. Materials assembled from nanoparticles often exhibit distinctive properties compared to those of individual building blocks; for example, optical, magnetic, electronic, and catalytic properties have been all manipulated by adjusting the interparticle distance. Achieving programmable assembly and disassembly of individual nanoparticles in a reversible fashion could therefore lead to dynamically tunable materials. We are particularly interested in designing nanoparticles that assemble in response to external stimuli such as light, magnetic fields, and chemical fuel. Our efforts could lead to new classes of “driven” materials with features such as tunable lifetimes, time-dependent catalysis, and dynamic building block exchange. We hope that these efforts will enable the development of new synthetic dissipative materials that could rival in complexity and functionality those found in nature.

Representative publications