About the Institute for Soft Matter Synthesis and Metrology
The emerging field of soft matter
research deals with the study of materials that exist between rigid
solids and flowing liquids. Familiar examples include foams, gels,
adhesives, lubricants, and many biological materials, such as blood or
tissue. Soft matter plays an increasingly important role in commercial
applications and new technologies, but behaves fundamentally differently
from traditional, relatively well understood solids and liquids. The
goal of current soft matter research is to understand and control the
molecular scale structure of soft matter in order to engineer new
classes of materials. Georgetown’s Institute for Soft Matter Synthesis
and Metrology, or I(SM)2,
launched in 2011 as the result of $6.9 Million construction grant from
NIST, serves to catalyze the development of fundamental principles and
practical measurement tools that can be applied to soft matter synthesis
and precision measurement and characterization (metrology). The
Institute comprises faculty primarily from the Departments of Physics (new window) and Chemistry (new window), as well as Oncology (new window) in the Medical School.
Soft Materials have an astonishing range of applications, in products
that we use everyday. Here are just a few examples of the industries
built on soft matter. This is not an exhaustive list!
Plastics – all plastics are made of soft matter (polymers).
Paints – Paints are a mix of polymers, pigments,
and colloidal particles. Making non-drip paint requires intimate
knowledge of the rheology of dense suspensions, and understanding the
non-equilibrium process of paint drying is crucial to develop a fine
smooth finish. Coatings (on glass, wire, and metals) involves similar
Textiles – similarly, all textiles are made of soft
matter. Understanding why silk is such a fantastic material is of great
Food – Everything we eat is soft matter, and
understanding how to process, package, and even eat food materials
involves a range of interesting scientific problems. There is even a
field called “psycho-rheology” that studies how the physical texture of
food influences how we perceive and ultimately enjoy it.
Personal Care Products – Creams, lotions, soaps,
and other materials are soft matter, and product design involves
detailed knowledge of the physics and chemistry of the materials, as
well as processing.
Life – Biology is literally active soft matter, and
the subject of enormous growth and interest from physics and chemistry,
as well as biology and medicine of course. Non-equilibrium phenomena
are at the heart of life and its myriad function.
Energy – The oil industry is built on soft matter,
there is a great push on using soft polymeric materials to make solar
cells. Looking to biology, the process of photosynthesis and harvesting
light for energy relies on soft matter physics and chemistry.
Construction Materials – Wood, plaster, and cement
all begin as soft materials. Wood begins as living matter
comprising different polymers, and plaster and cement come from dense
colloidal liquids whose properties and behavior, upon adding water and
subsequently drying, lead to the materials used for walls, roads, and
Our research focuses on understanding the non-equilibrium behavior of
soft matter, all the way from chemical details to coarse-grained
modeling. We have a strong focus on integrating our understanding
through novel metrologies.
Precision tools and techniques for measuring and manipulating
the microstructure of complex materials under controlled conditions
Micro- and nano-scale probes for measuring the mechanical properties
of microscopic quantities of soft matter to probe connections among
microstructure, mechanical properties, and processing conditions.
Synthesis and characterization of nanoparticle dispersions,
including the dynamics of self-assembly of molecular precursors and
novel approaches to polymerization.
Synthesis and characterization of self-assembled fibrillar networks,
investigations of the self-assembly processes under induced stress,
such as that from light, shear, or magnetic fields.
Methods and tools to guide and characterize interactions between
cells and engineered biocompatible environments. Control over
structural, mechanical and biochemical conditions to allow for a better
understanding of cell function in physiologically relevant conditions
and control of cell function through materials engineering.
Collaboration and Dissemination
The I(SM)2 serves to catalyze regional and national
collaborations and disseminate tools and principles of soft matter
synthesis, protocols for processing, and metrology. This Institute
supports the regional conference series, The Mid-Atlantic Soft Matter (MASM) Workshops.
MASM was established in 2007 by Georgetown scientists to encourage
inter-institution collaboration, and provides an effective venue for
promoting interaction among soft matter researchers from academic,
industrial and national laboratories in the Mid-Atlantic region. The
workshops are informal and structured to maximize participation,
breadth, and involvement of young researchers.