A Molecule With Many Properties

  In an RWTH Aachen lab, Prof. Walter Richtering and doctoral candidate Susanne Wiese Copyright: Peter Winandy

In an RWTH Aachen lab, Professor Walter Richtering and doctoral candidate Susanne Wiese describe how sensitive microgels can enable the sustainable production of cosmetics.




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RWTH Aachen Scientists in Collaborative Research Center Develop Better Understanding of the Potential of Microgels and Microgel Systems

Most people have come across hydrogels at least once: In their natural form as a jellyfish on the beach or as a synthetic fluid reservoir in baby diapers. These networks of natural or artificial materials distinguish themselves through high elasticity and are swollen with water. Gels can be very small: some microgels are only 100 nanometers. The soft, networked polymer particles react particularly quickly on this scale.

Microgels are able to be equipped with specific functions and can absorb contaminants or release targeted agents. Provoked against a corresponding structure, they can aid as membrane filters or act as sensors. Exploiting this potential at the nanoscale is a challenge for science, since the development of interactive and “intelligent” systems, how they are characteristic of living organisms, has not been able to be achieved so far. “In our interdisciplinary research association, we want to recreate such natural structures and embed them in the corresponding systems,” explained Univ.-Prof. Dr. rer.nat. Walter Richtering.

Interdisciplinary Teams

Prof. Richtering, Head of the Institute of Physical Chemistry, is speaker of the collaborative research area or SFB Functional Microgels and Microgel Systems. Representatives from the natural and engineering sciences are working on this project, which has been funded by the German Research Foundation or DFG, since July 2012. Interdisciplinarity is one of the basic requirements of a SFB, but it was important to Prof. Richtering to additionally anchor it into the structure: “The scientists should not work parallel to each other, but rather together daily. For that reason, all of the project teams are made up of representatives from all disciplines.” Physicists and process technicians or chemists and doctors then work on a topic in this manner. Special technical solutions, such as a uniquely established SharePoint and virtual trial and data management, enable everyone to have access as well as exchange, independent of location. “We are learning how to understand the language of other disciplines,” says Prof. Richtering. “It is possible. In the end, the close, successful collaboration of natural scientists and engineers is one of the particular features of RWTH Aachen. We are also able to take advantage of the skills in the affiliated institute DWI- Interactive Materials Research, and cooperate with the Forschungszentrum Jülich.”

SFB researchers are designing complex microgels in a total of 17 partial projects, that are nested in the polymer sciences, process engineering, and life sciences. They are also equipping them with varying functions and integrating them into a new application system. This is first and foremost a part of fundamental research. However this consistently keeps an eye on possible implementation on a technical scale and sustainable production processes. In the course of this simulation with high-performing computers hold significant value addition to experimental processes in the lab.

Gentle Detoxification

The Aachen scientists are working, for example, on a microgel, that is expected to be useful in the treatment of diarrheal diseases. The bacteria responsible for the troubles free harmful toxins in the intestines and are typically fought with antibiotics. A new microgel could speed up the healing process: the toxins equipped with special receptors as docking stations will be bound and thus made harmless. Afterwards they leave the body with the microsponge.

In order to make a functional medicine using this plan, a number of interdisciplinary solutions are necessary: chemists “build” the microgel, doctors and biotechnologists search for possible bonds for the toxin receptors while physicists investigate, how the laden nanosponge moves. And finally, process technicians clarify the production of such functional materials on a scale relevant for therapeutic applications.

From Seed Fund to SFB

An intensive preparation phase was behind the scientists as the DFG approved the SFB in the spring of 2012. The university supported the first studies through “Seed Fund” and “Pathfinder” funding. These instruments were implemented within the framework of the first RWTH Aachen Institutional Strategy with funds from the Excellence Initiative. They support promising and interdisciplinary research projects in early phases.

The first draft paper resulted in 2010 from all of the preparatory work. An evaluation round and a meeting in Aachen took place afterwards. The funding amount for the first four years is about 10.5 million Euros. This allows for 33 doctoral candidates and five post docs to be employed. A maximum funding period of twelve years is possible after positive evaluation.

A graduate school is integrated in the Aachen collaborative research center, in which employees participate in seminars, presentations, and summer schools are.