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New equation predicts molecular forces in hydrophobic interactions
Date:10/11/2011

(Santa Barbara, Calif. ) The physical model to describe the hydrophobic interactions of molecules has been a mystery that has challenged scientists and engineers since the 19th century. Hydrophobic interactions are central to explaining why oil and water don't mix, how proteins are structured, and what holds biological membranes together. Chemical engineering researchers at UC Santa Barbara have developed a novel method to study these forces at the atomic level, and have for the first time defined a mathematical equation to measure a substance's hydrophobic character.

"This discovery represents a breakthrough that is a culmination of decades of research," says Professor Jacob Israelachvili. "The equation is intended to be a tool for scientists to begin quantifying and predicting molecular and surface forces between organic substances in water."

Using a light-responsive surfactant a soap-like molecule related to fats and lipids the researchers developed an innovative technique to measure or change the forces between layers of the molecule in water by using beams of UV or visible light. The result is a general equation that applies to even more complicated systems, such as cellular membranes or proteins.

"We were fortunate to find the right combination of experimental methods and theory," said Brad Chmelka, UCSB Chemical Engineering professor and co-author of the study. "The keys to our research were using a light-responsive surfactant molecule, a means of measuring these delicate surface forces, and applying knowledge of what to look for."

The highly-sensitive instrument they used to sense these molecular-level hydrophobic forces, called a surface forces apparatus, is a now-standard technique that was originally pioneered by Israelachili and colleagues in the 1970s.

"In basic chemistry, students learn about van der Waal forces the weak forces that act between all molecules. That theory was developed more than 10
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Contact: Melissa Van De Werfhorst
melissa@engineering.ucsb.edu
805-893-4301
University of California - Santa Barbara
Source:Eurekalert  

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