Imagine a world in which roads can sense their damage and repair themselves like human skin, or in which natural disasters such as forest fires and landslides are prevented by materials that change shape and stiffness automatically, or in which clothing materials change their porosity to become personal protective equipment (PPE) when the clothing itself senses airborne pathogens. These futuristic ideas are currently science fiction, but if we have any hope of creating these amazing technologies, we need to begin today. This collaborative project seeks to explore the fundamental underpinnings of the materials needed for such applications. Specifically, in order to design any of these futuristic devices, we need to have materials that are self-powered and assembled hierarchically from energy-using building blocks. Luckily, many biological systems, such as cells, plants, and humans, are already capable of sensing their environment and responding by moving, changing shape, or releasing chemicals. The basic building blocks of these biological systems are enzymes, nanoscale machines made of protein that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In order to dissect and begin to create an understanding of how enzymes can animate matter, our team will use enzymes to power new synthetic materials at the nanoscale to microscale. In the future, these nanoscale materials can be assembled themselves to create new larger scale active materials.
The discovery of the atom in the early 19th century was an incredible scientific achievement and the mathematical developments of the time yielded indispensable modern techniques essential for understanding the behavior of noisy and random processes. These techniques have produced fundamental results in a wide range of fields, such as climatology, astronomy, economics, and many more. Today, in the field of active noisy systems — e.g., the study of objects that propel themselves but are subjected to noise (randomness), such as cells or autonomous robots — there is potentially another important juncture, where both the scientific and mathematical implications can innumerably benefit modern life. This project aims to discover and develop the fundamental mathematical framework for understanding these noisy active systems by developing accurate models of the individual agents, i.e., of a cell or single robot, and testing the models with experimental measurements. Movement of the individuals is a fundamental building block that is vital to explicating the group or flocking behaviors present in, for example, living organisms, robotic explorations, or dynamically-adapting engineered materials. Scientifically, this project will advance our fundamental understanding of active noise and set the stage for developing applications in science and engineering. This research will take place in an interdisciplinary environment and students will be trained in the emerging scientific field of active noise.