Engineering professor developing materials to link humans, machines

Around the world, scientists and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are working on neural implants that could connect human brains with powerful artificial intelligence technology. To link human and machine, you need just the right materials — and a promising material is under development at the University of Delaware.

David C. Martin, the Karl W. and Renate Böer Chaired Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, is advancing novel polymeric materials to integrate electronics with human brain tissue. Martin, the associate dean for Research and Entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering, has been named a 2021 Fellow of the Materials Research Society (MRS) “for the design, synthesis, and characterization of conjugated polymers for interfacing electronic biomedical devices with living tissue; and for service to the MRS and broader materials community.”

MRS Fellows are selected for distinguished research accomplishments and outstanding contributions to the advancement of materials research. The maximum number of new Fellow appointments each year is limited up to 0.2% of the current MRS regular membership. Martin is one of 15 new Fellows named this year.

The promise of PEDOT

Martin and his research group work with the conjugated organic polymer poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene), known as PEDOT. This material is conductive, flexible and stable — all properties that make PEDOT a promising candidate for technologies that bring rigid hardware in contact with squishy living tissue. Examples could include electronic brain implants that help Parkinson’s Disease patients regain mobility, cardiac pacemakers to regulate heart conditions, cochlear implants to restore hearing function, and more.  PEDOT has been approved for use in humans on certain electronic biomedical devices, and several research groups around the world are continuing to explore its potential.

Martin studies chemical variations of PEDOT that can make its properties even more favorable. His research group has created a variety of new PEDOT molecules, such as variations that include the brain chemicals dopamine or tyrosine. The team is now studying these molecules in more detail to determine their potential uses. More research is needed to develop implantable devices that are effective, safe and stable while minimizing scarring.

“I’m honored to be named as a Fellow of the Materials Research Society (MRS),” said Martin. “The MRS society has a long tradition of excellent scientific programming and service to the materials science community. I’ve been blessed with many excellent students and postdoctoral scientists over the course of my career, and this recognition would not have been possible without all their hard work and dedication. There are many exciting things happening at the interface between materials and biology, and many challenges remaining. These integrated components have the potential for transforming the impact of healthcare and technology in the future.”

| Photo by Evan Krape |