ConspectusMost robust functional organic materials are currently based on polymers. These materials exhibit high stability, but once formed they are difficult to modify, adapt to their environment, and recycle. Materials based on small molecules that are held together by noncovalent interactions can offer an alternative to conventional polymer materials for applications that require adaptive and stimuli-responsive features. However, it is challenging to engineer macroscopic noncovalent materials that are sufficiently robust for practical applications.This Account summarizes progress made by our group towards the development of noncovalent "aqua materials" based on well-defined organic molecules. These materials are uniquely assembled in aqueous media, where they harness the strength of hydrophobic and π-πinteractions between large aromatic groups to achieve robustness. Despite their high stability, these supramolecular systems can dynamically respond to external stimuli. We discuss design principles, fundamental properties, and applications of two classes of aqua materials: (1) supramolecular gels and (2) nanocrystalline arrays. The materials were characterized by a combination of steady-state and time-resolved spectroscopic techniques, electrical measurements, molecular modeling, and high-resolution microscopic imaging, in particular cryogenic transmission electron microscopy (cryo-TEM) and cryogenic scanning electron microscopy (cryo-SEM).All investigated aqua materials are based on one key building block, perylene diimide (PDI). PDI exhibits remarkably stable intermolecular bonds, together with useful chemical and optoelectronic properties. PDI-based amphiphiles carrying poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) were designed to form linear supramolecular polymers in aqueous media. These one-dimensional arrays of noncovalently linked molecules can entangle and form three-dimensional supramolecular networks, leading to soft gel-like materials. Tuning the strength of interactions between fibers enables dynamic adjustment of viscoelastic properties and functional characteristics. Besides supramolecular gels, we show that simple PDI-based molecules can self-assemble in aqueous medium to form robust organic nanocrystals (ONCs). The mechanical and optoelectronic properties of ONCs are distinctly different from gel-phase materials. ONCs are excellent building blocks for macroscopic free-standing materials that can be used in dry state, unlike hydrogels. Being constructed from small molecules, ONC materials are easy to fabricate and recycle. High thermal robustness, good mechanical properties, and modular design render ONC materials versatile and suitable for a variety of applications.In the future, noncovalent aqua materials can become a sustainable alternative to conventional polymer materials. Examples from our research include stimuli-responsive and recyclable filtration membranes for preparative nanoparticle separation, water purification and catalysis, light-harvesting hydrogels for solar energy conversion, and nanocrystalline films for switchable surface coatings and electronic devices.
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