Single-molecule studies of light-emitting polymers: observing and manipulating polymer conformation in solution

  • Skabara, Peter (Principal Investigator)

Project: Research

Project Details


"A remarkable advance in modern science is the ability to detect the light emitted by single molecules. This achievement - the demonstration of the ultimate detection limit - lies at the heart of a new era of microscopy that is transforming our understanding of biological processes. The ability to pinpoint the exact location of a single dye molecule, quantify fluctuations in the emission of individual molecules or the possibility of stretching at will a single biopolymer are providing knowledge that before it was only possible to dream of. Whilst these techniques will continue to revolutionize biology, we now propose to apply them to give breakthroughs in materials science. The first aim of this proposal is to develop a toolbox of single-molecule techniques that offer for the first time the opportunity of observing and manipulating materials as depicted in the textbooks: molecule by molecule. We will use these techniques to make a pioneering breakthrough in linking the conformation of conjugated polymers in solution to their light-emitting properties. Understanding this relationship is crucial because a key advantage of these materials is that they can be processed into optoelectronic devices using simple deposition methods from solution.

Conjugated polymers are very promising for organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays as well as solar cells and transistors. The display of information - on mobile phones, televisions and monitors is very important for work, communication, entertainment and learning. Advances in display technology have been dramatic and some of the most attractive are OLEDs. To meet the growing technological opportunities, it is crucial to develop a deeper understanding of how the properties of conjugated polymers relate to their conformation. The conformation is the shape of the polymer and it has a huge effect on the optical properties but it is very difficult to study because every polymer chain has a different shape. We will overcome this problem by measuring single polymers in solution, and by developing techniques to mechanically manipulate the conformation of the polymer to identify how changes in shape alter its light emission properties. This is a pioneering area because single-molecule methods for non-aqueous environments are still in their infancy and our work will allow us to understand how the solvent affects polymer conformation and light emission with an unprecedented level of detail.

Our second goal involves the novel concept in materials sciences of manipulating the polymer backbone using mechanical force whilst simultaneously monitoring its fluorescence properties. We will apply manipulation techniques to conjugated polymers for the first time. Stretching the polymer in a controlled manner will reveal the optical signature of different conformations (i.e. linear versus collapsed) enabling the emission properties to be related to the underlying shape of each individual polymer chain - information not available by any other technique.

To achieve these goals, we have put together a team of leading scientists in key areas through a collaboration between St Andrews (polymer physics single-molecule) and Strathclyde and UCSB to assist with the synthesis of novel orthogonally functionalized conjugated polymers. The proposal also benefits from a partnership with Cambridge Display Technology Limited (CDT, UK), the leading company in polymer LED technology, that will help us to efficiently translate our findings into technological advances. Our project partners at the University of Leipzig will assist with the integration of mechanical manipulation into our single-molecule fluorescence microscopes. Our results will not only advance the field of polymer LEDs, but also other polymer optoelectronic areas such as lasers and solar cells, and the wider fields of polymer and materials science."
Effective start/end date1/02/1631/01/19


  • EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council): £185,421.00


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