PHILADELPHIA - Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have received a five-year, $3.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop materials for multifunctional coatings on emergency tents, enabling them to manage water, prevent the spread of bacteria and capture and store solar energy.

These disparate capabilities all stem from fundamental research on how materials behave on the nanoscale, where minute structural details can produce large-scale effects.

The grant is part of the NSF’s Partnerships in International Research and Education, or PIRE, program, which seeks to foster global collaborations on topics of societal importance.

The Penn team features dozens of faculty members and students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, School of Arts & Sciences and Perelman School of Medicine. It is being directed by Russell Composto, Engineering’s Associate Dean of undergraduate education and a Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Zahra Fakhraai, an Assistant Professor in the School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Chemistry; Daeyeon Lee, an Associate Professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; and Kristin Field, Director of Programs at the Nano/Bio Interface Center are also on the leadership team.

Their project, “Research and Education in Active Coatings Technologies for the human habitat,” or REACT, is principally a collaboration with GIANT, or Grenoble Innovation for Advanced New Technologies, a public-private research partnership based in Grenoble, France, which has received a complementary grant from the French science funding agencies Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, or CNRS, and Angence Nationale Recherche, or ANR. Patrice Rannou, Associate Director of International Research, is the Director of the GIANT contingent.

“We have a longstanding relationship for international research experience and student exchange with GIANT,” Composto said. “This grant is going to expand this relationship and organize it around three coating technologies: water management, infection control, and energy collection and storage.”

The project is also being conducted in conjunction with COMPASS, the Complex Assemblies of Soft Matter Lab, which is itself a collaboration between Penn, CNRS and Solvay, a multinational company with facilities near Penn and Grenoble. Ryan Murphy, the Research and Innovation External Affairs Coordinator for Solvay North America, leads the Solvay contingent.

Penn will also collaborate with researchers at Alabama State University, Villanova University and Bryn Mawr College.

The ultimate goal for the PIRE project is a prototype of an emergency tent that exhibits all three active coating technologies, or ACTs. However, the fundamental nature of the properties they will exhibit mean they could be applied, individually or together, in many architectural contexts.

“These types of coatings can have much broader impacts,” Lee said. “Since they can be sprayed or painted on a variety of materials, they could be used to completely renovate already existing buildings to make them more eco-friendly and energy efficient.”

Members of all of the project’s partner institutions will collaborate on the basic science and industrial design necessary to realize the three ACTs. 

ACT 1, Hierarchical Structures for Water Management, will be led by Robert Riggleman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Shu Yang, Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Whether environmental conditions involve too much or too little water, controlling where it goes is of critical importance. ACT 1 research will involve developing superhydrophobic coatings that are inspired by natural examples, including beetles and cacti. These coatings will provide a flexible way of channeling water through nanoscale membranes that will filter out harmful impurities.

ACT 2, Prevention of Infection Transmission, will be led by Lee and Mamie Coates, an Assistant Professor of Microbiology at Alabama State University. In crisis zones, the need for medical attention may rise as the ability to maintain sterile conditions drops. This research track will investigate how surface features influence adhesion, with the specific aim of preventing the formation of infection-spreading biofilms. Research into bacteria’s chemical and mechanical tools for clinging to surfaces will inform soft material-based countermeasures, such as coatings that react by releasing antimicrobial agents or that attempt to directly destroy these cells’ membranes.  

ACT 3, Self-assembled Nanomaterials for Energy Generation and Storage, will be led by Fahkraai; Christopher Murray, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in Chemistry and in Materials Science and Engineering; and Karen Winey, the TowerBrook Foundation Faculty Fellow and Professor in Materials Science and Engineering. Lighting, heating, cooling and communications are also critical in disaster zones, so emergency shelters that can provide their own electricity would be more self-sufficient. ACT 3 aims to develop nanoscale “waveguides” that can channel sunlight to photovoltaic panels, as well as polymer-based batteries to store it while in the field.    

“The idea is to have energy-harvesting layers, water-collecting layers and antibiotic layers,” Fakhraai said. “We can make them transparent and porous so they can stack them in different orders depending on what the needs are. The most challenging part will be to make it so that their properties don't interfere.”

Beyond exchanging researchers and sharing nanoscale tools, the partnership will develop students’ teaching and presentation skills through Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning. In addition, students will receive mentoring and internship opportunities with GIANT and Solvay. “We’re training them for science in an international environment,” Field said.

Solvay is also sponsoring the group’s kick-off symposium in December where REACT members from all partner institutions will have a chance to meet and begin planning their research agenda for the next five years. Harvey Rubin of Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, an expert on natural disasters and emergency response, will provide a keynote address. Vijay Kumar, the Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering; Dawn Bonnell, Penn’s Vice Provost for Research; and Xavier Morise, head of CNRS’ North American office, will also speak.