Food is not usually thought of as a materials category, simply because (1) it is so commonplace and (2) it is edible. However, all food shares the feature which ultimately defines materials: The structure (on microscale or nanoscale) defines its properties, and therefore our whole experience of it. Taste, texture, smell, “feel”, appearance, shelf life, etc., can all be rationalized in terms of material science – i.e. “how fundamental building blocks come together”. These would likely be combinations of carbohydrates, fat, protein and dietary fibres. It is noteworthy that combination needs not pertain to a solid material. Many beverages have small bundles of e.g. protein or fat floating around – the case of e.g. milk, beer or cocoa. Solids perfectly distributed in a liquid, to the point that the said liquid appears homogenous to the naked eye. This scenario is still, at the core, a materials challenge.
LINX is able to investigate all these myriad aspects of food on every length scale. With its “factory floor” of leading universities it can scrutinize why food behaves in particular ways according to different external conditions. However, chemically and structurally, food is immensely complex; hence several universities are developing new research methods to deal with the challenges and help companies develop better food for a hungry world.
The Drugs topic in LINX covers R&D in pharmaceuticals. It covers all length scales, from the nanoscale throughout the microscale. At one end, the atomic structure of active components determines the way they interact fundamentally with our bodies. This aspect is studied by means of crystallographic techniques at Aarhus University. The story is continued at a slightly larger scale (though still “nano”) where investigation into shape, orientation and the ordering of active molecules, especially in solution, reveals their actual state within our bodies, how they may enter cells, etc. This is the expertise of the University of Copenhagen. Together, the two aspects describe the so-called “bio-availability” of drugs in our bodies. Finally, at the microscale, the Technical University of Denmark, DTU, uses imaging techniques to enable studies of the detailed structure of e.g. tablets or capsules, complete with filler materials and other co-ingredients.
Between them, the three length scales contain a vast body of information, brought together in LINX as a “one stop shop” solution to optimally assist the R&D divisions of the pharma industry and to help develop improved drugs (or drug dispensing techniques) for the growing demands across the world.
Polymeric materials include all plastics, rubber, teflon, etc., as well as many carbohydrates (e.g. starch or cellulose) and other bio-molecules. It is a vast category with innumerable applications in society.
The core feature of any “polymer” is that it is fundamentally made from a single chemical building block, which is repeated in sequence to form extremely long, chain-like molecules, like an infinite stack of identical Lego blocks. The blocks can vary in complexity and the sequence be more or less regular, but the recipe is universal.
Just like chains, polymer molecules are extremely flexible and can curl, fold or intertwine in a large number of ways. As such, many polymers together tend to form vast and entangled networks with different degrees of order and coherence. Some materials are mixtures of different polymers, adding even more complexity. The bottom line is that the properties we experience in polymeric materials depend on (1) the specific polymers as well as (2) the nature of the network.
LINX assists companies with R&D into polymeric materials, with a particular focus on the nanoscale, i.e. the order of 0.0001 mm. The efforts are shared between the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen, of which the latter uses X-ray and neutron techniques (SAXS/SANS) highly suitable for this nanoscale regime. However, visualizing the microstructure (DTU) is equally crucial, as it is formed by the nanostructures. Aarhus University, in turn, investigates fundamental order in the polymer arrays – completing the picture in a bottom-up approach.
The LINX topic “Fibres & Fabrics” deals with R&D of fibrous materials. Fibres manifest themselves in many ways, often acting to improve the mechanical properties (e.g. strength), heat resistance or insulating abilities in many materials we know from everyday life – fabrics included, in all the clothes we wear. Other manifestations are less obvious, such as reinforcement in windmill wings, enabling them to withstand the enormous tension the blades experience when the wind is blowing and the mill turning. Other examples include Kevlar (bulletproof vests), yarn (sewing) and a vast number of plants.
These properties hinge on the nature of the underlying fibre networks, i.e. how the fibres order, intertwine, orient and connect. Such features are visible on the nano- or microscale (generally 0.0001 mm and up), which makes them an excellent target for the SAXS/SANS technique deployed by the University of Copenhagen, and for imaging which is the expertise of the Technical University of Denmark, DTU. By “seeing” and understanding the fibre networks, the general, everyday properties of fibrous materials can be rationalized so as to enable LINX to provide a boost to innovation (or troubleshooting) for several of its member companies.
This LINX topic covers such materials as metals, semiconductors, glass and ceramics. Each of these is in itself a huge category, but they share the feature that properties dictated by atomic structure propagate all the way through nanoscale and microscale to our everyday world. This brings all LINX’s core techniques into play, beginning with crystallography at Aarhus University, moving across nanostructural analysis at the University of Copenhagen and ending with microstructural imaging at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU).
The topic naturally also includes different production methods. 3D-printed metals, for instance, is currently receiving great attention. Considering product operation, even something as mundane as common steel is worth scrutiny in order to assess e.g. product lifetime. Other materials are more exotic and in categories of their own. One example is magnetic materials, the heart of every electric motor (from hairdryers to train engines), since they convert electricity into motion. Declining magnetism due to structural degradation means a motor losing efficiency and ultimately a broken product. Hence, LINX is keen to engage in studies oriented around operating conditions, adding to a better understanding of product lifetime.
One of the greatest challenges facing the world is the provision of a stable, sustainable energy supply. LINX tackles this problem through this topic, which covers all so-called “energy materials” that are able to either convert or store energy. Ion batteries are commonplace, whereas other materials are more exotic, e.g. the so-called thermoelectric materials which can convert heat directly into electricity just as a solar panel does with light.
Energy materials have often delicate structural features that are crucial to their function. Ion batteries, for instance, usually contain atomic-sized channels through which the ions migrate during charge or discharge. If these channels plug up, the battery is dead. Similar problems may arise at nanoscale or microscale level.
This is just one example why LINX must span every length scale from atomic level and up, and why the concerted action between the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University is necessary. Ultimately, it can bind together material properties through and through, culminating with products we can see and touch and which the companies in LINX can test and develop with fresh advice and guidance from the three universities.
The durability of magnets used in permanent magnet motor technology is important for the long-term performance of products. The LINX team at Aarhus University studies the degradation of permanent magnets in aqueous media and at elevated temperatures.
Food products are both soft materials and structured materials, and the scattering of X-rays and neutrons is used by the University of Copenhagen to advance the tools accessible to the Danish food industry.