Innovative imaging technique clarifies molecular self-assembly

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A unique collaboration between chemists and mathematicians at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) has led to a new imaging technique that enables the study of molecular self-assembly with an unprecedented level of detail. The researchers, led by TU/e professors Bert Meijer and Remco van der Hofstad, published their breakthrough last week in the leading journal Science. The new technique opens a world of unique opportunities for the study of complex self-assembling materials, not found in nature, with many potential applications in electronics, medicine and energy.

The research group focuses on materials called supramolecular polymers – long strings built up of single molecules. These materials have a variety of possible applications, for example as biomaterials in regenerative medicine, as nanotubes with good conductive properties in electronics, or as photovoltaic materials in future solar cells.

Revolutionary technology

selfassemblyGood imaging techniques are essential to understand the dynamic processes taking place at the tiny micro- and nano-scale of molecular self-assembly. The revolutionary and ingenious ‘super‑resolution microscopy’ technique introduced in recent years allows optical imaging of objects with dimensions smaller than would normally be possible using an optical technique.

Rare collaboration

The contribution of Van der Hofstad was necessary because the molecular machines studied by Meijer’s group are subject to all kinds of random factors, leading to a lot of ‘noise’ in the data. The stochastic models developed by Van der Hofstad allow much clearer image to be made. “It was as if the ‘fog’ covering our images was suddenly lifted”, says the lead author of the publication Lorenzo Albertazzi. According to the Italian researcher it is unique for chemists and mathematicians to work together in this way. “We should do it much more often, as these areas of expertise are very complementary.”

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