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I-SURF Report Summary

Project ID: 614606
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Germany

Mid-Term Report Summary - I-SURF (Inorganic surfactants with multifunctional heads)

Surfactants are technologically important molecular compounds used in everyday life (e.g. in detergents or emulsions) but they are also of enormous value in research because of their ability to stabilize surfaces. Because surfactants contain a water-soluble part (the head) linked to a water-repellant part (the tail) one of their most fascinating properties is the skill for so-called self-organization. In contact to water surfactants form higher organized structures like micelles or liquid crystals. However, that vast majority of surfactants known are pure organic compounds. Therefore, our idea for the ISURF project was to equip surfactants with properties only inorganic compounds can have, leading to a new generation of surfactants with advanced functionality out of reach for pure organic compounds. In all the cases, we introduce a novel head group, which contains one or several metal atoms. After sophisticated synthesis of the surfactant, we have to investigate the self-organization properties and explore possibilities for concrete applications.
In the first half of the ISURF project a team of 8 coworkers plus the PI could already make significant steps forward in the different key areas of properties and applications. One of our goals is to generate conductive surfactants, and we could now present two examples for it. Pure organic surfactants are electrically insulating, which is a large drawback for multiple applications (e.g. in electrocatalysis, or photovoltaics). When an inorganic head containing not less than 11xW atoms is combined to a so-called pi-conjugated chain, we obtained a surfactant in which an electrical current can flow from head to toe. This allows in the future to work with a unique type of miclles with electrically conducting walls. The second example involves a surfactant with head groups which are more acidic than the protons in pure sulfuric acid, a so-called superacid. The associated high mobility of protons was then used for the construction of novel proton-conduction materials which can in the future be used in fuel cell applications, for instance.
In the next focus area, magnetic surfactants are studied. Magnetic forces are not shielded in water, and therefore the hope was an additional long-range interaction between the surfactants could lead to entirely new self-organization properties. Our approach to incorporate paramagnetic metal atoms in the head group proved to be successful. While conventional (organic) surfactants form typically only small structures like the mentioned micelles, for magnetic surfactants one observes self-assembly bridging several length-scales from the nano- to micro- to millimeter scale. Furthermore, we show in a second example that the surfactant and its structure can be manipulated from the outside by an external magnetic field. The latter result opens up enormous perspectives for establishing a new branch of surfactants with smart properties. The ISURF team is also developing the analytical methodology to investigate the stimuli-responsive behavior. For instance an optical birefringence setup in an adjustable magnetic field was constructed.
The ISURF team has also managed to access two further areas, which were before sealed for conventional surfactants. Surfactants with ultrahigh-charge up to -5 were generated, and this led to a new type of bipolar micelles, which before had only been predicted theoretically. Furthermore, we have developed a Palladium containing surfactant, and it could already be proven that this compound has desired catalytic properties in cross-coupling reactions. With shells composed of catalytic centers a range of possibilities exist for the development of micellar nanofactories.

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