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Faculty - Richard Spontak

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B.S. Chemical Engineering, Pennsylvania State University (1983)
Ph.D. Chemical Engineering, University of California at Berkeley (1988)
919-515-4200 (phone)
919-515-3465 (fax)
Engineering Building I (EB1) - 2088E (office)
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Focus Areas
Polymer Morphology and Phase Sability. Multifunctional and Nanostructured Polymers, Blends and Networks. Application of Microscopy Techniques to Polymer Science and Engineering.

Current Projects
Emerging multifunctional polymers often possess a micro- or nanostructure that imparts such systems with the properties of the constituent materials. Improved design of these polymers necessarily requires an understanding of the synergistic thermodynamic, kinetic and material factors governing structural evolution and stability. The primary research focus of the Polymer Morphology Group (PMG) is to employ, and in some cases develop, complementary microscopy and scattering techniques to probe structural characteristics of microstructured polymers, nanostructured polymers and polymer composites.

Microstructured polymers are multiphasic polymer systems exhibiting micron-size structural elements (e.g., polymer blends). Since most polymer mixtures are intrinsically immiscible, we are currently exploring processing methods by which to produce new blends with interesting properties. By using supercritical carbon dioxide as a nonselective diluent, the temperature at which phase separation occurs in a polymer blend can be controllably shifted, thereby opening new processing windows in an environmentally friendly manner. High-energy mechanical alloying yields uniquely intimate mixtures of highly incompatible liquid crystalline polymers, commodity thermoplastics, and elastomers. We have also addressed the kinetics of structural development during concurrent phase separation and chemical reaction in a functionalized polymer blend.

Nanostructured polymers self-organize at the (supra)molecular level. In the melt or solid state, such materials include block and graft copolymers, which behave as two or more chemically coupled homopolymers and, if sufficiently incompatible, order into the same nanoscale structures as surfactants. We have examined various copolymers and copolymer blends to identify pathways by which to control their equilibrium nanostructure, an important consideration in the design of nanoscale membranes and inorganic templates. Another nanostructured system consists of a polymer in the presence of dibenzylidene sorbitol, a small organic molecule that forms a fibrillar network and produces organic physical gels. We have likewise examined nanostructured polymer solutions, such as those composed of block copolymers in a selective solvent, hydrophobically interacting polymers with a surfactant or salt, and lyotropic polymers exhibiting a mesophase.

Polymer composites refer to those systems in which polymer chains reside near an inorganic surface. We have employed bond-fluctuation simulations to investigate the equilibrium and dynamic characteristics of such chains, as well as mixtures of chains, grafted to an interface at specific sites along the polymer backbone(s). The results from such work are of practical use in the design of polymers for adhesion, lubrication, and barrier applications. Moreover, we have examined commodity polymers modified by a plasma-deposited SiOx surface layer to improve barrier performance. Studies of these composite materials, already in use in the food packaging and biomedical industries, reveal that the permeation of oxygen and water vapor can be reduced by over 3 orders of magnitude below that of a conventional glassy or semicrystalline polymer.

These studies are all collaborative in nature, and we interact extensively with academic and industrial research groups throughout the U.S., Europe, and Japan. An energy-filtered transmission electron microscope, cryoultramicrotome, cryofracture-replication unit, small-angle x-ray diffractometer, several optical microscopes, and lots of enthusiasm are all indigenous to the PMG.

Honors & Awards
bullet 2012 The Polymer Society (U.K.) Rubber Foundation Lecture
bullet 2012 Pennsylvania State University Alumni Fellow Award
bullet 2012 Alcoa Foundation Distinguished Engineering Research Award
bullet 2012 Norwegian University of Science & Technology Lars Onsager Professorship & Medal
bullet 2011 Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (U.K.) Colwyn Medal
bullet 2011 Fellow, Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (U.K.)
bullet 2011 Visiting Professorship, Meiji University, Japan
bullet 2010 Honorary Fellow, Australian Institute of High Energetic Materials
bullet 2009 Outstanding Mid-Career Teaching Award from the ASEE Southeast Section
bullet 2008 Fellow, Americal Physical Society (APS)
bullet 2008 UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching
bullet 2007 ACS Rubber Division Chemistry of Thermoplastic Elastomers Award
bullet 2007 German Society for Electron Microscopy Ernst Ruska Prize
bullet 2007 Pennsylvania State University Outstanding Scholar Alumnus Award
bullet 2007 Tewkesbury Fellowship, University of Melbourne
bullet 2007 COE nominee for the UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching
bullet 2006 International Network for Engineering Education & Research Recognition (iNEER) Award
bullet 2006 ACS PMSE Division Cooperative Research Award
bullet 2005 NC State Alumni Outstanding Research Award
bullet 2003 George H. Blessis Outstanding Advisor Award
bullet 2003-2005 Editorial Advisory Board, Macromolecules
bullet 2003 US DOE Energy Challenge National Competition, 1st Place Prize, Kitty Hawk, NC
bullet 2002 Senior Design Team Advisor Award for 1st Place, Multidisciplinary Design
bullet 2002 Editorial Advisory Board, Materials Today
bullet 2002 Micrograph featured on the cover of Advanced Materials
bullet 2002 Micrograph featured on the front cover of Macromolecular Rapid Communications
bullet 2001-2003 Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professorship
bullet 2001 Senior Design Team Advisor Award for 1st Place, Multidisciplinary Design
bullet 2000 NC State Alumni Outstanding Teaching Award
bullet 2000 Outstanding Teacher Award; induced into the Academy of Outstanding Teachers
bullet 1999 Visiting Prof., National Institute of Physics, University of Philippines
bullet 1998 2000 Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship, University of Freiburg