Team Approach Pays Off Big for Moore

An overlay of images at successive stages of force-induced chemical change. The blue image is the start of the reaction. The yellow image represents the end of the reaction. (Ashley Levato, UIUC)

Jeff Moore has had great success in his career as a researcher and professor but gets much of his satisfaction as a Beckman Institute faculty member from the relationships he has with his collaborators.

The birth of the Beckman Institute and the birth of his daughter are linked in Jeff Moore's memory. In 1988 Moore could look out from his daughter's birthplace at what is now Provena Medical Center across University Avenue and see the finishing touches being put on a large new facility for doing interdisciplinary research.

It was a year before Beckman would officially open and Moore was still working on his Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Illinois. Still, he was inspired.

"I was watching the Beckman Institute being built and I thought 'wow it would be really cool to come back and be there someday, wouldn't it.'"

After a post-doctoral stint at Cal Tech and three years teaching at the University of Michigan, Moore returned to a professorship at Illinois and two years later he found himself on the inside of Beckman as a faculty member. Today the Institute is a home base for Moore, partly because of his research work but mostly due to the strong connections he has with his partners in that research.

Moore is a member of the Autonomous Materials Systems (AMS) group at Beckman, which also boasts his frequent collaborators Nancy Sottos from Materials Science and Engineering, and Scott White from Aerospace Engineering. Together the three of them have received worldwide attention for their discoveries in self-healing materials and, more recently, an offshoot of that research line that discovered a new way to do chemistry.

Moore served for several years as a Co-chair of the Molecular and Electronic Nanostructures research initiative until 2004 when Sottos took over the position. These days much of his time is taken up as principal investigator on a large Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative grant secured in 2007 that brought in more than $6M to study mechanically active polymer composites.

The continuing string of research accomplishments and funding, however, isn't the prime reason behind Moore's presence at Illinois and Beckman. It's the connections with people here, especially his primary collaborators, White and Sottos.

"They are the reason why I will stay at the University of Illinois for awhile," Moore said. "As people they are great colleagues, stimulating, witty, full of ideas. Scott is always coming up with very creative, visionary ideas. Nancy, there is no other person if I had a question in experimental mechanics that I would go to. She knows her stuff. The two of them are really a great combination."

Actually, the three of them have formed a great combination. Together they pioneered the field of self-healing polymers, showing in a Nature paper in 2001 that tiny capsules containing a healing agent and embedded in a polymer material could be used to self-repair damage to materials.

The autonomic healing method they invented was a major breakthrough that has led to further projects like self-healing microvascular networks. In 2007 Moore and his group realized another important discovery when they showed that a mechanically active polymer incorporating what he called a mechanophore could be used to drive and control a chemical reaction, providing a new method mechanical force for doing chemistry.

The research breakthroughs have come from an approach that is highly interdisciplinary thanks to the varied backgrounds of Moore, Sottos, and White. It works, Moore said, because their approach is also highly complementary and team-oriented.

"(Scott and Nancy) are far afield from my main area of training yet it's of interest to me obviously," he said. "They are willing to tolerate a chemist's view of engineering and mechanics. They are patient enough with me and my group because they know we do sort of silly, stupid things because we are just chemists. At the same time we can kind of make fun of them, too, about their knowledge of chemistry. But we are all pointed in the same direction."

The team approach continues to prove successful. Moore said each of them contributes different expertise, with White being the "self-healing guru" and Sottos the driving force behind microvascular networks. Moore's role has been to contribute in the intersection where chemistry meets mechanics. That is where the mechanophore and a potentially giant step forward in chemistry were birthed.

"Scott (White) is always coming up with very creative, visionary ideas. Nancy (Sottos), there is no other person if I had a question in experimental mechanics that I would go to. She knows her stuff. The two of them are really a great combination." Jeff Moore

Moore said a variation of the molecule used to create the mechanophore's molecular unit had been known, but no one had ever attempted to use it in this way.

"No one had ever demonstrated that it was sensitive to undergoing the kinds of reactions that it is capable of undergoing by force promotion," he said. "So we didn't invent the molecule from ground zero but we are definitely building off of known chemistry. This is really where these ideas of physical organic chemistry played into the design."

Not that the discovery process was easy. The idea sprang from an AMS bi-monthly meeting but an initial attempt proved to be a dead end and it took more than three years to find success after the experiment was redesigned.

"Chemists really have a good sense of what reactions are possible," Moore said. "Then you just begin to imagine, and it is really no more difficult than that: OK in this reaction this bond breaks but that normally happens by heating the material. So we knew what bond was going to be broken, and then we wondered 'couldn't we just break that bond by pulling on it; would that not trigger the chain of events that happen after that in the normal chemical reaction?'

"Our first effort completely failed. Fortunately the student persisted and we came up with a second idea and the student was willing to have a go at it again."

Moore said they were working in uncharted territory and had to make sure the reaction was activated by force, something they couldn't prove for sure with the initial experiment.

"We didn't really know what to do in the early days," he said. "So we kind of redesigned a whole bunch of things at the point where we gave up the initial plan. We really went back to ground zero and said let's try a different approach, let's try a different reaction. The initial attempt completely failed and thankfully my student was not discouraged and didn't give up."

Moore's own group works on a variety of research projects focused around what he calls "molecular construction." They may study a type of chain molecules called Foldamers or two-dimensional macromolecular architectures, or work on self-healing polymers and mechanochemical transduction. According to his Web site "our research involves the synthesis and study of large organic molecules and the discovery of new polymeric materials."

And while his research is based on physical organic chemistry, Moore is keenly aware that it is now deeply intertwined with multiple fields. He also knows the importance of his research beyond the lab. Moore said more new breakthroughs are coming in the area of self-healing materials, with an important new paper to be published this fall concerning practical future applications of the technology.

"We're not there yet but there certainly is a roadmap of how it could get there and have a huge impact," Moore said. "That's certainly why I think I am attracted every day to come to the Beckman Institute as opposed to just living my life down in Chemistry. So it's an opportunity to contribute what we know to a project that's bigger than what we are or what we would do by ourselves. That is really a lot of fun."

And it's also fun to be doing those projects with his current group of collaborators.

"We are firing on all cylinders," Moore said with a laugh.