There are few materials as nimble and responsive as smart gels, jelly-like polymers now under development as sensor-driven sealants and fluid valve controls in applications as varied as drug delivery, biomedical sensing, tissue engineering and hydraulic fracturing.

But despite their huge, sector-spanning potential, little is known to date about how these gels perform in complex, real-world settings outside of the lab.

Shawn Chester, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and an expert in materials behavior, recently won a National Science Foundation grant to better understand their performance so that they make that transition and deliver on their highly anticipated promise.

“Polymeric gels are increasingly ubiquitous in the modern world; we use them in everything from contact lenses to oil well seals. Smart gels, which respond to stimuli such as changes in temperature, pH and ion concentration, among others, are the polymers of the future. We expect them to play a huge role in so many areas, from the biomedical device sector to industry, where they will be particularly useful as O-ring sealants, for example,” Chester says. “But we need to come up with effective ways to test them so that engineers can actually build devices around them. We still lack testing protocols, the needed experimental data and engineering models.”

Chester’s goal is to provide engineers with the simulation tools to test smart gels in particular applications so they can use them with confidence. He will study what is known as the “multiphysics” of various gels, testing their responses under a wide range of conditions to see how they expand, conduct heat and diffuse liquids, among other operations.

“We’re looking at these materials in a new way. Traditionally, engineers would have conducted a single test, such as stretching a material, and evaluated the response. It’s more revealing, however, to look at various changing conditions in a test,” he says.

“My larger, long-term research objective is to study the multiphysics of many different classes of polymers. Looking at many different factors makes the experiment much closer to real-world conditions. As an example, car accidents often depend on a number of conditions – from traffic, to pavement surface condition, to speed,” he adds. “I believe this will be useful to the field and a path to the future, enabling better informed engineering design.”

As part of his research mission – and NSF grant – Chester also tries to recruit new generations of engineers. This summer, he will be working with pre-college students from the region, including from groups that are underrepresented in STEM fields, on engineering tests.

“We will be constructing bridges with 3D-printed polymers and testing their strength. It should be a lot of fun.”