University of Rochester

$5 Million Funds University Project in Futuristic Plastics

April 23, 1999

A research team headed by University of Rochester scientists and engineers has received $5 million from the Department of Defense to explore new types of plastics that can create and manipulate light and change colors on demand.

The five-year project, dubbed TOPS for Tunable Optical Polymer Systems, is aimed at creating and exploring polymer, or plastic, materials that use light to store, display, and manipulate information. Applications include holographic information storage, clothing that can itself store and display information, very large and easily manufactured computer displays, and wallpaper and other materials that switch color as needed in response to temperature, lighting, or other conditions. The program is funded through DOD's Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, which supports basic research into areas of technology that may have future military applications as well as commercial uses.

"Not long ago, the plastic in high-tech devices wasn't much more than a simple insulator to protect the electronics. We've come a long way: Now plastics are the electronic components of many devices like computer screens, and we expect them to play a very large role in information display and storage in the future," says project leader Samson Jenekhe, professor of chemical engineering, chemistry, and materials science at the University.

Other senior investigators on the project are Shaw H. Chen, professor of chemical engineering and materials science and senior scientist at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, and Lewis Rothberg, professor of chemistry. Also taking part in the research are scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Texas at Austin, and Southern Illinois University. Altogether, members of the team hold dozens of patents and have contributed hundreds of research ideas to the emerging field of optoelectronic, or light-emitting, plastics. The scientists will work closely with their counterparts in industry to expedite applications of the new materials.

At the University, the project will support work by the three faculty members as well as five graduate students, three undergraduate students, and two post-doctoral researchers. The funding will also support the purchase of several pieces of equipment to build and analyze plastic devices, including a spectroscopic ellipsometer, an absorption spectrophotometer, a colorimeter, and computerized electrochemical equipment.

The funding comes on the heels of two research announcements by members of the team that received widespread interest around the world. Chen's team has created a novel class of plastic materials potentially useful for energy-efficient information displays and for optical communication, data storage, and laser protection. And Jenekhe has recently created plastic materials that assemble themselves into sophisticated optical devices useful in telecommunications and optical data storage. The idea that plastics could have such capabilities was unheard of just a couple of decades ago.

"This new project is a good balance between practical applications that we believe can be attained in a short time, and futuristic science that only a few people imagine," says Jenekhe. "This is an investment into the science behind many of the technologies of the future."