Enhancing microgels potentialities: ultrasoftness and cultural heritage applications

Funding Body: MIUR (2018-2021)
Emanuela Zaccarelli

The SOFTART project aims to explore the growing potentialities of microgels by focusing on two different aspects that are relevant for both fundamental and applied science. On one hand, it catches up with recent progress in particle synthesis, focusing on a novel class of microgels; on the other hand, it proposes to apply microgels in a yet unexplored context.
The project is organized in two workpackages (WP) that will build on the existing ERC action and will combine the MIMIC team with experimental competences at the host institution, the Institute for Complex Systems of the National Research Council (CNR ISC), based at the Department of Physics of the Sapienza University of Rome.

WP1 focuses on ultrasoft microgels that are synthesized in the absence of crosslinkers, lacking the core-corona internal structure typical of standard PNIPAM microgels and thus displaying an unusually low internal elasticity. For these reasons, ultrasoft microgels are likely to be the experimental realization of a long-seeked model system in condensed matter physics, associated to a number of peculiar properties, including a novel reentrant glass transition in density. These microgels would thus provide another example of soft matter behavior with no analogue in the atomic and molecular world, that will be crucial to test fundamental theories of the glass transition.
WP1 will include the synthesis — in silico and in laboratory — of ultrasoft microgels and the experimental and numerical characterization of their phase diagram, structure and dynamics.

WP2 deals instead with the application of microgels for cultural heritage preservation, particularly for the case of ancient paper. Indeed microgels are suitable, thanks to their size, to penetrate in the inhomogeneous structure of paper thus being able to clean it or even to reinforce it. In addition, their pH-responsiveness can be used to balance the acidity of degraded paper. Exploiting these properties, we aim to improve the efficiency of current cleaning protocols.
The activities of WP2 will be realized through synergic efforts, again involving theoretical, numerical and experimental competences of a large group of researchers at the host institution. WP2 will also benefit from the inputs of external collaborators, also including the final users of the technology that will be developed, namely the “Istituto Centrale per il Restauro e la Conservazione del Patrimonio Archivistico e Librario”, ICRCPAL, of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism.
Finally, WP2 is particularly relevant for a rich nation in cultural heritage like Italy and aims to answer a recent call to develop new soft materials for art conservation.