your television or computer screen coming from a container
as something to be applied to a flat surface like
a wall—or, screens so flexible that they can be rolled
up and put in a pocket.
Those futuristic screens are
closer to reality. John Protasiewicz, Case Western
Reserve University professor of chemistry, plans to
use funding from a special two-year, unsolicited grant
for creativity from the National Science Foundation
to prepare new conjugated polymers that feature novel
chemical building blocks and inorganic elements. Such
special plastics have potential uses in understanding
how these new display devices work, and could lead
to improvements in plastic display technologies.
Protasiewicz is among only
a few chemists in the country this year to be singled
out with a special creativity grant that acts as an
extension of prior NSF-funded projects that have shown
promise. According to the NSF, the creativity grants
“offer the most creative investigators an extended
opportunity to attack adventurous, ‘high risk’ opportunities
in the same general research area.”
The Case chemist is the only
one in his department known to have received this
special NSF funding of $300,000. He learned of the
award by e-mail while on sabbatical at Oxford University.
Since he had not previously heard of creativity awards,
he thought it was too good to be true and might be
a prank, he quickly called the NSF program officer
to find out what the “joke” was about.
It turned out indeed to be
a “Christmas in July” surprise for Protasiewicz, who
will build on his prior research in designing new
forms of polymers containing inorganic elements. These
plastics or polymers are very specialized and differ
from the Styrofoam in disposable cups or car bumpers.
These new materials have been
engineered to flavor them with other elements from
the periodic table, especially phosphorous, an element
that shares many properties with carbon— the main
backbone element in most all plastics.
“We are looking at these emerging
commercial materials as inspiration for creating polymers
that mimic these materials in form, but differ mainly
in the substitution of key carbon atoms by other elements,”
These new polymers presented
challenges of stabilizing the reactive sections of
the monomers, but Protasiewicz added that “this is
where our ability to do molecular design or architecture
comes in handy.”
Protasiewicz’s past research
has led to discoveries on how to build the shield
for the polymers to protect against reactions with
the environment while designing what chemists call
the “pi-ways” or the double bonds in the chain of
chemical molecules that create a pathway or flow for
electrons through these materials. These special pi-ways
are needed to produce the light-emitting effects in
the new field of organic light-emitting diodes (OLED)
based on conjugated polymers.
OLED—because of their low cost
to produce as well as the flexibility of the materials—are
expected to eventually replace the more rigid liquid
crystal displays (LCD) and cathode ray tubes now widely
used in electronics, said Protasiewicz.
“We can envision all kinds
of fun things with future polymers like a screen that
can be painted on a wall,” said Protasiewicz.
He elaborated on the science
of OLED. “These devices operate by putting basically
two electrodes on the material and then charging it.
Light is given off the material to make the display
The new materials can produce
photovoltaic properties, too, by shining a light on
them, which excites the electrons and causes them
to move around and emit light.
During the course of the search
for the new materials, Protasiewicz said, “We had
to develop some new synthetic chemistry to learn how
to put together these units.”
Overall he said the goal has
been to make new building blocks which have all the
“magic” properties to (a) stabilize introduction of
these exotic elements that we are putting into the
polymers so that (b) the specialized monomers in the
plastics can be connected or “stitched” together by
appropriate synthetic chemistry to make new materials.”
“Our materials are exciting
because they offer new insights into how these other
materials might work by reengineering the core sequence,”
To arrive at where the Case
chemist and his research team is at, he had to go
through a learning period of discovery and find ways
to overcome difficulties with the first generation
of these materials and their limited utilities,” he
“Now the door is wide open
for us, and we can have a lot of fun in the chemistry
playground with these polymers,” said Protasiewicz.
Case Western Reserve University
Case is among the nation's leading research institutions.
Founded in 1826 and shaped by the unique merger of
the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve
University, Case is distinguished by its strengths
in education, research, service, and experiential
learning. Located in Cleveland, Case offers nationally
recognized programs in the Arts and Sciences, Dental
Medicine, Engineering, Law, Management, Medicine,
Nursing, and Social Sciences. http://www.case.edu.
For more information: Susan