Research

Summary

Dr David Fengwei Xie has years of research experience in the interfaces between engineering, chemistry and physics and has a particular focus on biopolymers (polysaccharides and proteins) for ‘green’ materials and food applications. In particular, he has extensive experience in starch, chitosan, cellulose, alginate, and gelatin. His research has been focused on the following aspects of biopolymers:

  • Multilevel structures
  • Molecular interactions (e.g. hydrogen bonding, ionic interaction)
  • Dissolution and plasticisation
  • Chemical and physical modifications
  • Polymer processing and materials engineering (e.g. reactive processes, sustainable engineering)
  • Structural evolution during processing, modification, ageing and usage
  • Blends, composites and nanocomposites
  • Processing-structure-property relationships

Starch and ionic liquid. The thermal transition of starch is largely influenced by ionic liquid/water ratio. Aqueous ionic liquid with a certain ionic liquid/water ratio leads to the most effective structural disorganisation and amorphisation of starch at significantly reduced temperature (even at room temperature) (Carbohydr. Polym. 2013, 94, 520-530; Phys Chem Chem Phys 2015, 17, 13860-13871; ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng., 2017, 5 (5), 3737-3741), a phenomenon very different from the dissolution of cellulose in ionic liquids. The use of such ionic liquid:water mixtures can enable the effective plasticisation of starch in a highly concentrated state under “melt” processing at a moderate temperature (≤65 °C) (ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 2017, 5 (6), 5457-5467). Our research reveals that the surface pores on starch granules allow the corrosion by the aqueous IL to follow an inside-out pattern and thus the destruction of the granules is fast and even (Carbohydr. Polym. 2021, 258, 117677).

Aqueous ionic liquid assisted starch processing under moderate conditions
Aqueous ionic liquid assisted starch processing under moderate conditions

Starch and metal chloride salts. Starch, even high-amylose starch, can be fully dissolved by aqueous metal chloride salts (e.g. ZnCl2, CaCl2, MgCl2) at a moderate temperature (≤50 °C); starch nanoparticles form during this dissolution process (Carbohydr. Polym. 2016, 136, 266-273; ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 2020, 8 (12), 4838-4847). Under “melt” processing, ZnCl2 solution has an excellent plasticisation effect on starch and in-situ formed starch-zinc complexes can enhance the mechanical properties of starch-based materials (Carbohydr. Polym. 2019, 206, 528-538). Simply mixing CaCl2 solution with starch can lead to starch-based materials with ionic conductivity and strain-responsiveness (ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 2020, 8 (51), 19117-19128). Based on starch/CaCl2/glycerol hydrogel, flexible electronics including strain-sensitive batteries and self-powered wearable sensors can be constructed (ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 2022, 10, 20, 6724-6735).

Aqueous metal chloride salt-assisted starch processing under moderate conditions and preparation of starch-based hydrogel, battery, and self-powered sensor with strain-responsiveness
Aqueous metal chloride salt-assisted starch processing under moderate conditions and preparation of starch-based hydrogel, battery, and self-powered sensor with strain-responsiveness

Chitosan-based composites. Under “melt” processing with limited solvents, chitosan-based materials and composites can be prepared cost-effectively (Polymer 2013, 54 (14), 3654-3662). Prepared in this way, chitosan blends with other biopolymers (e.g. silk peptide, carboxymethyl cellulose, or gelatin) show extraordinary mechanical properties and unexpected hydrolytic stability, better than that of each biopolymer component (ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 2019, 7 (2), 2792-2802 about chitosan/silk peptide, Compos. Sci. Technol. 2020, 189, 108031 about chitosan/carboxymethyl cellulose, and Carbohydr. Polym. 2021, 272, 118522 about chitosan/gelatin), likely due to polyelectrolyte complexation. In these studies, we have also revealed that the overall material hygroscopicity and the surface hydrophilicity are controlled by different mechanisms.

Chitosan blend materials (with silk peptide and with carboxymethyl cellulose)
Chitosan blend materials (with silk peptide and with carboxymethyl cellulose)

Interesting observations under transmission electron microscopy (TEM)

“New structure” formed in biopolymer materials during TEM imaging

Images below: When imaging chitosan/alginate materials using TEM, we found the formation of a “new structure” from biopolymer and ionic liquid under the electron beam (ACS Appl. Polym. Mater. 2020, 2 (7), 2957-2966).

“New structure” formed in biopolymer materials during TEM imaging
“New structure” formed in biopolymer materials during transmission electron microscopy (TEM) imaging

Interconnected structure of nanofillers in biopolymer matrices

Images below: TEM shows interconnected microstructure composed of graphene oxide and sepiolite in chitosan and chitosan/carboxymethyl cellulose matrices, the formation of which could be due to the strong interactions between these hydrophilic nanofillers (Funct. Compos. Mater. 2021, 2, 14).

Interconnected structure of nanofillers in biopolymer matrices
Interconnected structure of nanofillers in biopolymer matrices observed under transmission electron microscopy (TEM)

Research projects (selected)

  • “Biopolymer-based functional aerogel materials for tissue engineering applications”, Royal Society, Research Grants 2022 Round 2 (RGS\R2\222071), GB£19,957.54, 10/2022–09/2023
  • “Tough, strong natural biopolymer-based hydrogels for artificial muscles”, Royal Society, International Exchanges 2022 Round 1 (IES\R1\221039), GB£11,930, 08/2022–08/2024
  • FROBCO”, EPSRC Fellowship (EP/V002236/1), GB£1,629,558 (fEC), 01/2021–12/2025,
  • ROBBINS”, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships (798225), 01/2019–12/2020, €195,455
  • Highly functional green materials platform: Starch-ionic liquid-carbon nanotube polymer melt nanocomposites”, ARC Discovery Project (DP120100344), AU$300k, 01/2012–12/2014

Funding

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