Sihong Wang receives prestigious NSF CAREER award to develop stretchable light-emitting polymers

The National Science Foundation has awarded Sihong Wang, assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), with the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, one of the foundation’s most prestigious awards for faculty members beginning their independent careers.

Wang received the award for his proposal to develop stretchable light-emitting polymers, essential components for bio-compatible electronics, soft robotics, and next-generation wearable technologies.

“This award provides strong support to me both as a researcher and as an educator, which is a true honor,” said Wang. “Our development of stretchable light-emitting polymers and OLEDs will generate new materials science knowledge in combining high-efficiency light-emitting mechanisms with stretchable polymers and help realize skin-like wearable displays and biocompatible optical bio-stimulation devices.”

The NSF’s CAREER award supports newly established faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education, and who will lead advances in their field. Wang will receive $625,000 over five years.

Bending light

From biomedical implants to skin-like electronic displays, stretchable light-emitting polymers have long been sought as a more biologically compatible alternative to rigid technologies such as organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). Because of their inflexibility, OLEDs often break when stretched or, in the case of wearable electronics, cause skin irritation over time.

Wang proposes to develop the first-ever stretchable, high-efficiency light-emitting polymer based on state-of-the-art materials called “thermally activated delayed fluorescence" (TADF) polymers. His platform would effectively open the door to an expansive field of stretchable electronics including fully integrated wearable electronics, foldable or rollable personal devices, and soft robotic skins.

Stretchable light-emitting polymers would also enable on-body biomedical imaging technologies and bolster optogenetics—a technique for controlling neurons and other cell types with light that’s used to investigate a broad range of diseases including Parkinson’s disease.

Wang’s broader work focuses on the development of biomimetic polymer electronics and bio-energy harvesting for biomedical applications. Already, he and his team have made breakthroughs in bio-compatible electronics, including a flexible, stretchable computing chip that processes information by mimicking the human brain, and a stretchable pressure sensor for soft robotics and prosthetic applications.

Generational material

In addition to his research activities, Wang will oversee several educational and outreach initiatives as part of his CAREER proposal. Central to these efforts is a focus on encouraging underrepresented students to engage in STEM fields.

Wang will create a program hosting both high school teachers and students in his lab, offering demonstrations and lectures on key polymer experiments. This expands on Wang’s current efforts, including an ongoing partnership with Chicago Public Schools to provide summer research experiences to high school students through partnerships with After School Matters and the Collegiate Scholars Program.

In addition, Wang will partner with Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry to develop interactive exhibits aimed at explaining the science behind optoelectronic polymers and wearable electronics to the public. This will coincide with the museum’s “Wired to Wear” exhibit.

Wang has also designed and launched a new undergraduate course at UChicago, titled “Functional Polymers for Electronics, Photonics, and Energy Technology.” It is be the first course about functional polymers at the University and will draw directly from his efforts on stretchable light-emitting polymers.

“I am also highly enthusiastic about using this highly interdisciplinary research integrating materials science, chemistry, and optoelectronics to provide unique training to students at different levels, attract underrepresented minority students to STEM areas, and bring science to the general public,” said Wang.