Soft Matter, Interfaces and Environmental Nanotechnology (SIeN)

Interfaces are a key building block of nanomaterials, nanocomposites, coatings and functional thin films; our work in soft matter targets polymers, gels, and biological tissues. Our research  is focused on obtaining a fundamental understanding of the principles underlying the properties of, and processes occurring at, interfaces and soft matter. The combination of the characterization of the fundamental properties of these systems, their use as models to study complex systems, and their use as building blocks for advanced materials fabrication, constitutes the core vision of our work. In the pursuit of this, my lab has three main research thrusts: (1) advancing the science and engineering of interfaces; (2) creating new knowledge that enables control of tribological performance at (sliding) interfaces; and more recently, (3) advancing the science and engineering of biologically inspired mineralization to create functional nanocomposites. Our goal is to bridge the fundamental knowledge gap needed to advance a range of applications including energy conversion and storage, clean water production, tribological and structural materials design, and translational medicine. For example, soft matter plays an important role in life as it affects the functionality of cell membranes, and they are essential for nanomedicine, i.e. the delivery of drugs. Future resources for the water and energy needs of our society, such as supercapacitors for energy storage and water desalination by nanofiltration membranes, rely significantly on interfacial properties. We are also interested in understanding the precipitation of CO2-binding carbonates because of its relation to geomorphological processes of the Earth’s crust, climate change and even, earthquakes.

The three current areas of  research are following:

  1. Science and engineering of interfaces. The goals are: (1) to elucidate the mechanisms underlying structural and dynamic properties of interfaces, (2) to develop novel experimental frameworks that enable understanding of their response to external stimuli, and (3) to establish design principles to control interfacial behavior. Our expertise in surface forces measurements is key for these investigations.
  2. Enabling control of tribological performance at sliding interfaces. The goals in this thrust are (1) to elucidate the mechanisms governing friction, lubrication and wear across length and time scales, (2) to develop comprehensive models that account for the influence of material/interfacial properties on the tribological response, and (3) to establish design principles for interfaces and soft matter that enable control of tribological and/or tribochemical performance.
  3. Biomineralization science and engineering. The precipitation of minerals in hydrogel-like environments is used by living organisms to build functional nanocomposites. Here, our goals are (1) to elucidate mineralization pathways in creating such complex nanocomposites, and (2) to advance the knowledge about the relation between mineralization pathway, microstructure and mechanical and tribological performance. We believe that this knowledge will inspire new avenues to craft biomimetic materials with a high degree of precision.

The ultimate goal of our research is to understand how to exploit intermolecular interactions to tailor macroscopic behavior. The current research targets both to answer fundamental and scientifically relevant questions and to solve problems that are relevant to applications. Other keywords: graphene, ionic liquids, soft matter nanoconfinement, hydrogels, lipid bilayers, surfactants, bio-interfaces, tribochemistry and mechanochemistry of mineral interfaces, calcite, hydroxyapatite, biominerals.

Three open PhD positions in the fields of:

  • structured graphene/ionic liquid interfaces for energy storage
  • hydrogel’s material design,
  • structure and dynamic properties of nanoconfined ionic liquids.

Admitted graduate students, please, contact me.

Are you a graduate or undergraduate students at UIUC and are interested in an independent project? Contact me.


  • Gus and Tooba are awarded poster prizes at STLE Tribology Frontiers Conference in Chicago 2019! Congrats to both of them!
  • We are truly grateful for the coming invited lectures by Prof. Rosa Espinosa-Marzal:
    • STLE Tribology Frontiers Conference 2019 in Chicago, October 2019
    • American Physics Society, Division of Soft Matter, Denver, March 2020
    • Materials Research Society, Symposium on Nanomanipulation of Materials, Spring meeting in Phoenix, April 2020
    • Gordon Research Conference in Ionic Liquids, August 2020
  • Well done, Tooba Shoaib and Mengwei Han, for passing your preliminary PhD exams!
  • Congratulations to Yijue Diao for passing her PhD final examination!
  • Congrats to Prof. Rosa Espinosa-Marzal for the 2019 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research! Click here to learn more about!
  • Congratulations to Josue Lopez for passing his PhD final examination!
  • Yijue Diao is Engelbrecht Fellow 2019. This award is given to the PhD student in environmental science and engineering with the highest potential for a successful career. Congratulations, Yijue!
  • Independent projects for undergraduate students. Contact us!
  • PhD Student Tooba Shoaib wins First Poster Prize at the STLE Tribology Frontiers Conference 2018, in Chicago. She presented a poster on the mechanisms of hydrogel lubrication. Congrats, Tooba!
  • Exciting Special Issue “Surface Forces, Adhesion and Friction“, guest editors: Younjin Min, Rosa M. Espinosa-Marzal, and Seong H. Kim. Submit your paper to Colloids and Interfaces, an open access MDPI Journal. Deadline for manuscript submission: 30 April 2019.
  • Our research in Hydrogel Lubrication has been recently featured as Cutting Edge Research in the Journal “Tribology & Lubrication Technology” (TLT). Read about it here. Congrats Tooba for an outstanding publication!
  • Gus Greenwood has been awarded Bienvenido M. Esmilla Memorial Writing Award in the Spring 2018 ! Well done, Gus!
  • Yijue won the first poster award at the Gordon Research Conference on Tribology and was elected as the chair of the next Gordon Research Seminars (GRS) for young investigators that will take place in 2020! 2xCongratulations to Yijue!
  • Josue Lopez was awarded the TechnipFMC Fellowship at UIUC in Spring 2018 to recognize his research on mineralized soft matter! Congratulations Josue!
  • Check our newest results about the role of water in fault lubrication!

Past Events: