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Transmission Electron Microscopy (image) of
microphase separated nanostructure of amphiphilic
comb copolymer. Akthakul et al., Macromolecules

Image Credit: Felice C. Frankel from micrograph
taken by Ayse Asatekin, published in No Small Matter
Science on the Nanoscale, Harvard University Press

Members of the Smart Polymers, Membranes and Separations Laboratory conduct research in the area of Engineering for Sustainability, one of the three strategic research areas for Tufts School of Engineering.

Our lab aims to develop the next generation of membranes by designing them from molecules up. Our membranes rely on polymers that self-assemble, form nanostructures, and expose chemical functionalities that enable them to perform functions normally not expected from membranes: remove not only bacteria but also heavy metals; react to stimuli; and separate small molecules by chemical structure. Overall, we aim to develop membranes that will help us generate clean, safe water more efficiently, and separate chemicals with lower energy use.

For generating clean water, we are focused on developing membranes that remove multiple types of pollutants in a single process, as well as self-cleaning membranes. We are also interested in developing the next generation of desalination membranes.

For more energy-efficient separations, we work on developing membranes with high selectivity that can replace more complex processes such as chromatography and extraction. The inspiration for such membranes comes from biological pores that modulate transport through the cell membrane.

To develop these systems, we start by looking into the type of chemical interactions and nanostructures needed for good performance in each application. Then, we design polymers that will self-assemble to form these systems during manufacturing. Polymers are a very exciting class of materials whose properties can be manipulated through not only chemical structure but also architecture, molecular weight, processing, blending, etc. We use what we know about polymer science to develop membranes with immediate applications. We also seek to better understand the fundamental processes that underlie both the formation (e.g. phase separation, surface segregation) and the performance (e.g. transport mechanisms, surface interactions, thermodynamics) of these systems.