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Spotlight on smart materials

Smart and Functional Materials research  at The Open University is driving forward the development of novel solutions to practical problems, and expanding scientific knowledge, in the fields of Energy, Nanotechnology, Diagnostics and Material Analysis using ‘smart materials’.

Smart materials have properties that react to changes in their environment. This means that their properties can be changed by external conditions, such as temperature, light, pressure or electricity. These changes are reversible and can be repeated many times.

Biological Therapeutics

The Biological Materials and Therapeutics group showed for the first time that a nanoparticle could have selective cancer cell toxicity and radiosensing potential. This discovery holds great promise for developing low-cost cancer nanotherapeutics.

Read the paper: Cancer-selective, single agent chemoradiosensitising gold nanoparticles

The group’s expertise cuts across analytical chemistry, pharmacology and biology and seeks to create novel solutions for drug and food supplement delivery.

Read about Biological Materials and Therapeutics at the OU

Nanoscale Energy and Surface Engineering

The Nanoscale Energy and Surface Engineering group has developed/discovered methods for controlling the geometries of 2D materials. These materials, sometimes referred to as single layer materials, are crystalline materials consisting of a single layer of atoms. They have uses in applications such as photovoltaics, semiconductors, electrodes and water purification.

Read the paper: Selective Calixarene-Directed Synthesis of MXene Plates, Crumpled Sheets, Spheres, and Scrolls

The group works with materials ranging from graphene and organic semiconductors, to inorganic materials and enzymes, across a wide range of real-life applications.

Read about the work of the Nanoscale Energy and Surface Engineering group

Analysis and diagnostics

The Analysis and Diagnostics group explores the enhanced mechanical properties of polymer composites filled with carbon nanotubes, the improved strength of which makes them suitable for demanding engineering applications, such as Structural materials for aerospace, transport, marine and in sporting goods.

Read the paper: The formation of a nanohybrid shish-kebab (NHSK) structure in melt-processed composites of poly (ethylene terephthalate) (PET) and multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs)

The group has a diverse research programme focusing on commercial and custom-made polymers, nanocomposites, novel inorganic-organic hybrid materials, and nanometrology. Additionally, the group studies the degradation of implantable materials used for regenerative medicine.

Read about the work of the Analysis and Diagnostics group


The Synthesis group researches novel materials with direct applications in the chemical and healthcare industries and also in areas such as waste, sustainability and the environment.

One of the materials the group researches is nanocages, in particular, a popular silicon-based nanocage called polyhedral oligomeric silsesquioxane, or POSS, which they are investigating for incorporation into materials used for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

Read the paper: Facile synthesis of novel hybrid POSS biomolecules via “Click” reactions

The group has also developed solutions to technical problems thanks to the versatility of organosilicon compounds. Examples of their extensive use in modern life include:

  • They are used in many personal care products, for example, they help to make hair silky in shampoos
  • They stop the diesel from foaming when cars are refilled
  • They are used as medical implants and contact lenses
  • They are used to waterproof buildings
  • They are used for cupcake holders during baking

Read about the work of the Synthesis group

In the video below, hear what Peter Taylor, Professor of Organic Chemistry has to say about the uses of silicone:

Environmental Applications

The Environmental Applications group research focuses on developing and analysing novel materials for environmental applications in the real-world.

Recent research demonstrates the potential usefulness of atmospheric plasmas for preventing hospital-acquired infections.

Read the paper: Efficacy of atmospheric pressure dielectric barrier discharge for inactivating airborne pathogens

The group has the expertise to tackle contemporary research challenges in environmental, sustainability and waste issues. It is also a leader in molecular imprinting, a highly specialised technique used in chemical sensing, and its potential uses in the areas of biological and environmental research.

Read about the work of the Environmental Applications group

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News & articles

Cartoon showing an interstellar dust grain coated in water ice, and the types of water-ice bonding that led to different spectral features

OU astronomers make new discoveries about ice structure in space

OU researchers are part of a team who have just published a paper in Nature which describes new findings about the structure of ice in space.

8th July 2024
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