Our Research

We conduct resarch at the borderline between stimuli-responsive materials and photonics. We aim on one hand at using light to control molecular order (often times using azobenzene photoswitches), and on the other hand at using molecular motions to control the properties of light. We harness light to control light and to create motion. We believe that the basis for disruptive technologies is a thorough and comprehensive understanding on the behavior of materials. Our mission is to conduct top-quality fundamental science, yet in fields that we foresee to have the potential to re-shape the technologies of tomorrow.

Our two focal areas, “Functional Supramolecules” and “Soft-Matter Photonics“, are strongly interrelated and allow us to approach the research questions we are interested in from both chemical (controlling molecules with light) and physical (controlling light with molecules) points of view. Our main activities and future goals on these two topical areas are treated separately below.

Functional Supramolecules

Herein, our main objective is to gain fundamental understanding on functional supramolecular self-assemblies, with particular, but not sole, focus in light-responsive systems. We work extensively with supramolecular polymers and liquid crystals, with the aim of triggering light-induced order-disorder transitions and macroscopic photomechanical movements in supramolecular materials. We are particularly interested in elaborating the role of directionality and strength of supramolecular interactions on the functionality of the system, with special focus in halogen-bonded materials.

Halogen bonding is a highly directional attractive interaction between an electrophilic region associated with a halogen atom, and a nucleophilic site. We foresee halogen bonding to be the supramolecular interaction of choice when devising, e.g., supramolecular photonic devices, or photoactuators based on (supramolecular) liquid-crystal polymer networks. We also believe that halogen-bond-driven self-assembly allows for controlling charge-carrier transport and recombination in organic semiconductors, thereby providing a novel design tool for “Supramolecular Electronics”. Will halogen-bonded materials redeem their promise? We will find out!

Soft-Matter Photonics

Within the ERC Starting Grant project PHOTOTUNE, our aim will be to build a light-tunable photonics platform, based on light-responsive liquid-crystalline polymers and elastomers. Upon light-irradiation, such materials can reversibly change their size or shape due to destruction of molecular alignment within the polymer network through photochemical or photothermal stimulus, or a combination of these. We will use the photodeformable materials to fabricate (i) photonic nanostructures with light-tunable lattice parameters, and (ii) thickness-tunable thin films and periodic layered structures. We expect to be able to present a new platform for tunable photonic components and optical sensing.

We are also interested in light-driven soft actuators from the perspective of understanding the material design principles leading to efficient optical-to-mechanical energy conversion, ultimately aiming towards light-fuelled, millimeter-sized “smart robots” that are able not only to walk or swim, but also recognize changes in their environment, thereby mimicking natural biological systems. Finally, we strongly believe in the potential of azobenzene-based surface patterns in photonics, microfabrication, and biomaterials science, and actively seek for new ideas and collaboration possibilities in this domain.