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INTERACT Report Summary

Project ID: 648763
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.1.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - INTERACT (Intelligent Non-woven Textiles and Elastomeric Responsive materials by Advancing liquid Crystal Technology)

Reporting period: 2015-04-01 to 2016-09-30

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

A grand challenge in today’s materials research is the realization of flexible materials that are also intelligent and functional. They will be the enablers of true breakthroughs in the hot trends of soft robotics and wearable technology. The standard approach to the latter is to decorate rubber sheets with electronic components, yielding two serious flaws: rubber is uncomfortable as it does not breath and solid state electronics will eventually fail as a garment is flexed and stretched when worn. While the softness of rubber is ideal it must be used in the form of textile fibers to provide breathability, and for long-term failure resistance we need intelligent components that are soft. A solution to this conundrum was recently presented by the PI with the concept of liquid crystal (LC) electrospinning. The extreme responsiveness of LCs is transferred to a non-woven textile by incorporating the LC in the fiber core, yielding a smart flexible mat with sensory function. Moreover, it consumes no power, providing a further advantage over electronics-based approaches. In a second research line the INTERACT team uses microfluidics to make LC rubber microshells, functioning as autonomous actuators which may serve as innovative components for soft robotics, and photonic crystal shells. This interdisciplinary project presents an ambitious agenda to advance these new concepts to the realization of soft, stretchable intelligent materials of revolutionary character. Five specific objectives are in focus: 1) develop understanding of the dynamic response of LCs in these unconventional configurations; 2) establish interaction dynamics during polymerization of an LC precursor; 3) elucidate LC response to gas exposure; 4) establish correlation between actuation response and internal order of curved LCE rubbers; and 5) assess usefulness of LC-functionalized fibers and polymerized LC shells, tubes and Janus particles in wearable sensors, soft robotic actuators and high-security identification tags.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

Since the beginning of the project we have been working on WPs 1-3 (liquid crystal-functionalized fibers responding to gas exposure and tensile strain; microfluidics-produced liquid crystal elastomer actuators; polymer-stabilized liquid crystal shells for photonics) and WP 6 (photonic liquid crystal shells for security tags) was started in month 13.WP5 was originally scheduled to start in P2 and WP4 has been postponed, from month 14 to month 24, due to a priority shift in the fiber track, where alternative sheath polymers become a main target in P2 whereas quantitative sensing experiments are done ahead of schedule (experiments in P2, equipment was designed and set up in P1). The main achievements are:
o WP1: First systematic study of gas sensing with liquid crystal-functionalized fibers was published (Liq. Cryst. Gold Open Access) and the results were presented at multiple international conferences and symposia. The study also revealed a previously unknown type of response, with very high speed and excellent sensitivity, currently being investigated in depth.
o WP1: Fibers with dual liquid crystal core channels, well separated from each other such that their individual properties could be detected in one and the same fiber, were successfully spun. The study was published in Journal of Materials Chemistry C (open access since embargo expired).
o WP2: Together with external collaborators a new LCE chemistry was developed, requiring solely commercially available components, and the microfluidic shell production technique was adapted for this chemistry.
o WP2: Photopolymerization in shells of nematic and smectic type was systematically studied and the conditions for success were identified. This dramatically prolongs the lifetime of shells and it allows the selection of a certain desired director field configuration, with a specific set of topological defects, to persist in the final shell. At the same time, unexpected side effects of polymerization were identified and explained, and the conditions for avoiding them were defined. The study was published after the end of the reporting period in Advanced Materials.
o WP2: The design criteria for a unique confocal microscope, tailor-designed for the INTERACT project were drawn up and the tender process was successfully completed.
o WP3: A protocol for reproducibly producing cholesteric shells with excellent photonic crystal properties, even after stabilization by photopolymerization, was developed. The photonic cross communication in an array of shells with different photonic bandgaps was studied, revealing unexpectedly complex behaviour, and a model that successfully explained all observations was developed. The production of the shells and their polymerization, as well as the optical characterization and the explanation of the novel photonic cross communication patterns, was published in Scientific Reports. This paper created considerable interest also beyond scientific audiences, as illustrated by an invitation to speak at a business-focused conference dealing with packaging, coverage in several high-tech news websites, and even an invitation to participate in cultural events.
o WP6: Together with our computer science partners working on the project we are well underway of developing algorithms for the conversion of the photonic cross communication patterns into digital security keys, and the first component of the analyses was included in the recently published Scientific Reports paper. This WP is thus running ahead of plan.
o General: the PI delivered multiple invited talks at conferences, symposia and seminars in several countries, in Europe and the USA, as well as invited review articles (an extensive review was submitted (upon invitation) to J. Phys. Cond. Matt. within the reporting period). New collaborations with key leading groups were established.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

Apart from what has been published in the above mentioned papers, our progress in this respect is too early to disseminate at this stage.
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