UC Merced Connect: Team creates new material that shrinks when heated

An interdisciplinary team of researchers at UC Merced have created a material that shrinks when heated, a new way of enabling a material to move using light or low-energy heat, and discovered why that happens – findings that are featured in a paper published on the website of the journal Nature’s Chemistry.

The article details the results of work professor Jennifer Lu has conducted for more than five years, as well as the breakthroughs accomplished by Lu, professors Christopher Viney and Erin Johnson, graduate student Xingyuan “Alex” Shen and professor Changchun Wang of Fu Dan University in Shanghai, China.

“Our mechanism is completely different,” Lu said. “This is a whole new field – there’s a lot of work that can come from this.”

“We are particularly proud of this group of investigators,” Vice Chancellor for Research Sam Traina said. “The work is novel and groundbreaking, but this is only the beginning. We expect this effort to not only produce more fundamental knowledge but also to lead to a number of important applications in the future.”

The work led to the realization that the material – polymers or macromolecules – could fold and unfold like a collapsible wine rack with the use of infrared light, a much lower-energy and less-damaging trigger than the ultraviolet light often used to make such changes.

“I was particularly excited to see the combination of experiments and computational models to advance our understanding of this novel material,” said School of Natural Sciences Dean Juan Meza. “This is the wave of the future.”

While practical applications are far in the future, the material has potential for use in near-infrared controlled mechanics, a field that concerns devices such as artificial heart valves or thermal sensors for anti-cloaking and harvesting thermal waste. Viney said the material is extremely durable, having shown no signs of degradation over tens of thousands of repeated folds.

Johnson, with the School of Natural Sciences, develops theories to examine interactions within and between molecules, while Lu, with the School of Engineering, specializes in novel nanomaterial design, synthesis and characterization. Viney, with the School of Engineering, is a materials scientist who focuses on the structure and properties of polymers.

Team wins grant to study language and molecules

An interdisciplinary team of researchers at UC Merced has begun an ambitious quest to discover common principles that guide evolution of structures at the linguistic and molecular levels.

Professors Rick Dale in cognitive science, David Ardell in evolutionary biology and Suzanne Sindi in applied mathematics will spend the next three years conducting research that employs computational and mathematical models as well as human data to see what kind of fundamental similarities and differences they can find.

“We’re thinking of language as an organism that takes shape due to environmental factors,” Dale said. “The research could suggest there are common principles guiding this evolution, whether it’s in language or biology.”

The project is funded by an $800,000 grant from the National Sciences Foundation and was sponsored by two different NSF directorates – Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, and Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Out of more than 1,000 applications, fewer than 10percent of projects are funded, Dale said, making it an extremely competitive process.

The team includes researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and New Zealand’s University of Auckland. The funding also supports travel and three UC Merced graduate students.

Dale said the INSPIRE grant is a perfect fit for UC Merced, where many barriers typical in academia don’t exist.

“There are a lot more cross-cutting collaborations at UC Merced than at other places I’ve seen,” he said.

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, email