Finland (University of Tampere) Significant ERC funding for Hao Zeng to develop life-like materials that communicate with each other

Hao Zeng, an Academy Research Fellow at Tampere University, has been awarded European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant of 1.5 million euros for his research on interactive stimuli-responsive materials and micro robots. The funding is directed to developing a general design route to obtain communication between inanimate materials.

According to Hao Zeng, current dynamic materials concepts are all based on the internal material properties and interaction between individual materials is a huge challenge. There exists an increasing need for artificial materials that can interact like biological systems.

The research ONLINE – From light fueled self-oscillators to light communicating material networks merges the contemporary hot research topics of responsive materials and soft robotics.

In his research Zeng provides a general design route for all kinds of responsive materials to obtain their communication.

“This project is based on a physics concept of self-oscillation feedback, which can be generalized to other materials or chemical systems. Herein, this research offers a general route to materials communication and will increase the cross-talk across scientific borders,” Zeng says.

“First, I’ll buy this big monster machine!”

Hao Zeng works as an Academy Research Fellow at Materials Science and Environmental Engineering unit. He’s also a leader of a group called Light Robots, in which the project will be executed. The group studies light-weight robotic systems that are driven and communicated by light. The group is synergistically powered by the multi-disciplinary research activities from Smart Photonic Materials group.

“All the people in these groups will contribute to this ERC project. We share the experience, knowledge, and excitement with each other. Indeed, the most important elements of a Dream Team are the team members,” he underlines.

Zeng’s initial reaction to getting the grant was – as he puts it – “quite calm”. The first thing he’s going to do is buy a laser writing micro fabrication system.

“This big monster machine can easily produce 3D microscopic structures and interesting robotic elements that can bend, walk and swim at the truly microscopic scale,” he explains.

Most of the grant Zeng will use to recruit two PhD students and a few post-doctoral researchers to his team.

Bioinspiration will guide designing new ONLINE materials

Bioinspiration guides Zeng’s work to make inanimate materials interact or communicate. Living systems involve activities across multiple bio-chemical and physical hierarchies, from molecular-level reactions (gene-expression and protein-interaction), cellular rhythm and development, to steady functioning (homeostasis), and clustering and grouping between individuals (communication).

Inspired by these biological concepts, ONLINE will develop life-like material structures that communicate with each other via physical contact, fluidic medium, or optical beams.

“These inanimate materials will be coupled to form networks that communicate autonomously through light,” Zeng explains.

Boosting research on the field of self-oscillation

The core concept behind the communicative materials is self-oscillatory (self-sustained) motions in light-responsive liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs). Self-oscillation is a responsive structure that can self-sustain its own mechanical motion in a constant energy field. It captures the key concepts of living organisms, i.e., functioning out of thermodynamic equilibrium and energy dissipation.

“Self-oscillation in stimuli-responsive materials is the research field I really want to promote. My goal is to design different self-oscillator systems and scale down the concepts to the micro-scale to realize soft material robots that can communicate,” Zeng states.

According to Zeng, the image that robot can self-sustain its own movement, make its own decision, and adapt to the environmental condition is built upon simple material responsiveness and feedback, with no need for human control.

“The research of self-oscillation is so far at its infant stage. My biggest expectation is, after running this ERC project for a few years, that more people will find it interesting, and more researchers would like to join into the community and contribute to this research field.”

ERC Starting Grant for top-level early-career scientists

The project is funded by the European Research Council, which grants funding to top researchers for high-level frontier research. In its funding decisions, the scientific quality of the application is the only assessment criterion. The ERC Starting Grant is for top researchers with 2 to 7 years of experience since completion of their PhD. At Tampere University, ERC funding has been granted to 13 researchers since 2015.