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KNOXVILLE — University of Tennessee chemist Bin Zhao is finding ways to make molecules smarter.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Zhao a three-year, $285,000 grant to continue his research on “smart” polymers that are designed to respond temperature changes in their environment. The polymers form box-like containers in water that, as the temperature changes around them, release their contents.

Dr. Bin Zhao
Dr. Bin Zhao
When used in the context of medicines, the polymer, acting as a sort of capsule, would contain drug molecules. By responding to the changes in temperature of different areas of the body, the molecule would “know” the most effective time to release the drug.

Zhao is specifically developing molecules that can respond at more than one temperature, a trait known as multiple transitions.

“The structure and function of multi-responsive polymers in water can be finely tuned to meet the demands of various applications,” he said.

Beyond their potential medical applications, the thermosensitive polymers Zhao is developing could be used in a number of fields. Using these polymers, chemical reactions could be turned on and off at certain temperatures.

Zhao’s research is part of a growing trend in chemistry and other fields of science towards nanotechnology. By working with individual molecules on a scale less than a thousandth of the width of a human hair, scientists are able to narrowly tailor their function.

In his research, Zhao will build these polymers and then analyze their structure through a variety of means to better understand their function. He’ll focus providing guidelines on how to design these polymers in the future for applied uses.

In addition to advancing his research, Zhao will use the $285,000 grant to expose students at the undergraduate level, as well as high school teachers, to polymer chemistry research.

“I’d like to get students thinking at the earliest possible levels about polymer chemistry and its applications,” said Zhao.

Jay Mayfield (865-974-9409,

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