Skip to main content

Soft Matter at Aqueous Interfaces

Final Report Summary - SOMATAI (Soft Matter at Aqueous Interfaces)

Aqueous interfaces, i. e. interfaces between water and other materials are ubiquitous in daily life. They are contained in all biological matter as well as in many products of frequent use. Soft matter, specifically polymers and colloids, can drastically influence the properties of aqueous interfaces, thereby providing a tool to manipulate their physical properties. Thus, a thorough understanding of the phenomena at work can lay the foundations for the rational design of interfaces with a desired function. However, until recently research on soft material at aqueous interfaces has been fragmented into numerous highly motivated research projects but with an unfortunate lack of concerted action. Therefore, SOMATAI ( set out to provide young researchers with the necessary continued education to tackle basic scientific challenges in this field with a multidisciplinary approach.

SOMATAI training has been based on three main pillars: (i) training by research, where fellows worked under the supervision of senior scientists on their own research projects aiming for a PhD in the case of ESRs (ii) a series of special training events (STE) of approximately one week’s duration per event. Here, fellows received hands-on training on all important methods applied in the field of soft matter at aqueous interfaces, as well as extended training in transferable skills, and (iii) a ramified system of exchanges and inter-sectorial secondments, where fellows from academic nodes were seconded to industrial partners and vice versa, allowing them to experience how research topics are handled in the respective complementary sector.

Training through research and research projects
SOMATAI research was organized into individual ESR projects which were grouped into three work packages, ranging from adsorption of soft matter to aqueous interfaces (WP1), in-plane structures within an interface (WP2), through to the advancement of the understanding of soft matter dynamics near interfaces (WP3). Besides results of basic scientific interest, the ESRs’ research work yielded insights which may well have technological impact in the mid-term. Three examples are highlighted below.
One project was devoted to exploring the potential of applying biological polymers, which are seen as waste products in other processes, for corrosion protection. The results have shown how it is possible in principle to achieve good coating adhesion, despite the presence of water in the interfacial region between metal and protective coat. This prepares the way for more applied work in coatings development in the future.
In a project with focus on experimental developments, a new, powerful super-resolution microscopy approach, termed iPAINT, was devised, which is tailored to investigate various types of interfaces. iPAINT is a generic method able to super-resolve interfaces in three-dimensions in complex soft materials, such as dispersions, emulsions, and foams. Therefore it is likely to find widespread use in various areas of science and technology as a non-invasive 3D imaging tool to study the topology of soft and dynamic interfaces, such as droplets, bubbles, and ice crystals.
The work done in an industrial project has led to a novel way of using vegetable proteins, e.g. from corn, which are usually insoluble in water. The standard use of these proteins is in cattle and pig feed. Using this new process, the proteins achieve a quasi-soluble state, enabling their application in a much wider area, e.g. in human food, which fits in well with the current trend to reduce the use of animal-source protein.

Special Training Events (STE)
SOMATAI delivered 10 weeks of special training events as planned. During these events, fellows received hands-on training in all important methods applied in the field of soft matter at aqueous interfaces, as well as extended training in transferable skills. Furthermore, SOMATAI organized a ten-day Summer School for 40 students in August 2014, where SOMATAI PI lectured on the subject of the ITN. The programme was complemented by a number of research presentations from highly regarded scientists in the field, including G. Ertl, Nobel laureate 2007. The contents of the Summer School were published in the Springer Lecture Notes in Physics Series, vol. 917
Finally, SOMATAI organized an international conference in May 2016 which attracted 72 participants from 14 countries. This event gave the SOMATAI fellows the opportunity to present their research results to an international audience. Contributions to this conference are published in the RCS-themed issue “Soft Matter at Aqueous Interfaces” (

Dissemination and outreach activities
The scientific results obtained by SOMATAI were published in 21 articles in peer-reviewed journals, 75 oral presentations as well 41 posters at conferences and workshops, and form the basis of 5 PhD theses so far. A number of publications and theses are in still in preparation.

Further, SOMATAI partner institutions and SOMATAI fellows have contributed to a variety of outreach activities, from trade fair exhibitions to contributions in web blogs. Most importantly, an image video explaining the work of SOMATAI to the non-scientific public is now available on YouTube at:

Socio-economic impacts of the project
The major socio-economic impact of SOMATAI takes place on three levels. First, there will be an impact on the public level, as the network performed multidisciplinary research in a field, which is relevant for the production and improvement of a host of consumable goods used in daily life. Some of the ESRs’ research projects yielded results which might increase the environmental sustainability of important industrial processes, as exemplified by the successful project exploring the possibilities of using biological polymers for anti-corrosion coatings. Further, the involvement of industrial partners in SOMATAI has increased the level of basic understanding of the properties of soft matter at aqueous interfaces among industrial researchers. This will enhance the options for the knowledge-based rational design of materials and products and consequently result in a more effective use of resources and increased environmental sustainability.

Secondly, thanks to the SOMATAI activities industrial and academic employers are provided with a group of well-trained young researchers, many of them to the level of earning a scientific doctorate. From this, industrial employers will benefit in two ways. (i) They will find potential employees who have been trained at the front edge of research and (ii) the same persons are well connected to academics who know well about the industrial dimension of soft matter research. Both aspects will have sustainable impact on the position of European industry in the billion dollar market of soft matter related materials.
Academic institutions will benefit from SOMATAI by finding young PhDs, who are trained to independently tackle scientific challenges in a multidisciplinary field of research, well connected worldwide to friends and partners in industry, and received an intensive transferable skills training. In short SOMATAI provides European academia with future scientific leaders.

Finally, there will be an impact on the personal level. As a direct effect, the ESRs will benefit from the training received through SOMATAI in terms of increased employability and improved career options. Further they were provided with networking options within the Soft Matter community, reinforced by the close connection of SOMATAI with SoftComp and ESMI, which will be of great help for their career development. Eventually, the participation in common training events with colleagues from a number of different countries in one class prepared the ESRs for a professional future in international teams as they are commonly encountered in modern scientific working environment.