Programming and real-time monitoring light degradability of polymers


Over the last century, synthetic polymers are the class of man-made materials that have most shaped daily life – in such diverse roles ranging from food storage to medical implants to synthetic fabrics. Of the many polymerisation techniques available, radical polymerisation of vinylic monomers plays a significant role in fundamental and commercial research – with this technique responsible for approximately 45% of the world’s polymer production. While the underlying polymerization mechanism simplifies synthesis and imparts robustness to the resulting polymers, it also imposes a significant limitation: all carbon backbones. This critically limits the polymer functionality and furthermore prevents degradation, presenting a major pollution threat to the future of our planet. One potential solution to this problem is light driven polymer degradation. The high spatiotemporal control and natural abundance of light makes it an ideal stimulus to initiate polymer degradation, yet no technology enables incorporation of photodegradable linkages into the backbone of radical polymerizations.

This project spans both the design and synthesis of an unprecedented class of light degradable polymers, as well as the development of the analytical techniques leveraging mass spectrometry to monitor real-time polymer degradation. On the synthetic side, this project aims to develop monomers containing moieties that enable access to inherent degradation mechanisms. Upon polymerisation, these cleavable monomer linkages are embedded into the resulting polymer’s backbone, which can be degraded on demand by irradiation with light. Using advanced mass spectrometry techniques – including ion mobility mass spectrometry and laser photoactivation – the structures of these polymers and their fragments are interrogated, providing an unprecedented platform for online monitoring of real-time photodegradation.

Relevant literature: Frisch et al., Chemical Science, 11, 2834 (2020)


Soft matter materials

Materials characterisation