This patterned thermal profile is obtained during the free-surface frontal polymerization of dicyclopentadiene in a straight channel. (Credit: Beckman Institute)

Seeking answers on how to fabricate functionally useful patterns in ways inspired by developmental biology, a team of scientists has used frontal polymerization to mimic biology and reimagine manufacturing.

In general, complex patterns integral to the structure and function of biological materials arise spontaneously during morphogenesis, or a biological process that causes a cell, tissue, or organism to develop its shape. In sharp contrast, functional patterns in synthetic materials are typically created through multistep manufacturing processes, making it difficult to change how materials are patterned.

The researchers used a relatively new manufacturing technique known as frontal polymerization, a reaction-thermal diffusion system, which utilizes the diffusion of heat to promote chemical reactions. Under certain conditions, the chemical reaction produces regions with varying degrees of heat. The team took advantage of these properties to change polymer microstructure and mechanical properties, and subsequently fine-tuned the reactions based on the applications of heat. The result achieved is essentially the varying stiffness of materials.