Developing materials that make a difference

This Gazette article features Dr. Nancy Albritton, Chair of the UNC/NCSU Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, and four other UNC material scientists.

To make a big difference, Carolina researchers start small – very small.

The biggest breakthroughs come from the right atoms, in the right sequences, building the right structures.

From drug-delivery implants smart enough to read the body to solar cells that turn sunlight into usable energy, the right materials are vehicles for real change. They not only serve the everyday lives of human beings without interruption, they also help protect the Earth instead of wearing it away.

That dynamic work goes on in labs all over the Carolina campus where researchers are using the building blocks of basic science to solve problems in energy, water, health and more by creating new materials or adapting the properties of existing ones for better results.

The most successful materials scientists aren’t working alone, said Nancy Allbritton, professor and chair of the UNC/NCSU Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering. They come from different perspectives and with different motivations, but without partnerships none of them would get very far.

“The greatest inventions and discoveries are at the interfaces of disciplines,” she said. “It’s where you bring these very different disciplines together that things get really exciting and a lot of the true innovative and creative technologies begin to be had.”

An Enhanced Body
Nancy Allbritton, professor and chair of the UNC/NCSU Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering:

“We’re building things that have to interface with the human body in the right way. A good example is an implant: if you get a new joint, or some sort of surgically implanted device like a defibrillator or a pacemaker, you need that artificial material to work well with the body. We don’t want a bad reaction.

“The kinds of things we’re looking at for the future are things like flexible devices that are wearable, so a lot of properties have to be associated with that. We have to have the ability to embed the device, it has to be lightweight, and you don’t want it to develop scar tissue or for the body to reject it.

“We have faculty who build particles to release insulin when glucose goes high, and the material that holds the insulin has to be very smart. It has to sense the level of glucose, it has to dump insulin when glucose is high and turn it off when it’s low. That material not only has to perform its job well, but it also can’t make the body upset.

“These are the kinds of things that have become embedded in our lives to the point where we overlook them and might see them as trivial. Most people don’t realize how important these materials are.”

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