Funding cutting-edge, collaborative research

NSF announces newest awards for Material Research Science and Engineering Centers

Materials science and engineering research thrives in collaborative environments, and now we have 12 more examples of how the National Science Foundation (NSF) helps ensure creative, inclusive environments where progress can be made in this diverse scientific discipline.

NSF today announced awards for 12 Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs) for multidisciplinary work that covers all areas of material science, fostering active university, national laboratory, industrial and international collaboration with integral multidisciplinary education and outreach. MRSECs receive $56 million in NSF funding.

The centers support some of the world's best multi- and inter-disciplinary materials research and education addressing fundamental problems, such as developing new nanomaterials to build better artificial knee replacements and heart valves or developing 2-D materials that will likely transform supercomputing. While some research centers in other disciplines may have one specific focus or mission, the MRSECs serve primarily as a hub of collaboration where research interests can range more broadly, addressing several scientific questions or issues.

"These awards are representative of the exquisitely balanced and highly multidisciplinary research portfolio spanning all of the division-supported research areas," said Mary Galvin, director of the NSF Division of Materials Research. "These multidisciplinary awards, in particular, will promote areas such as next-generation quantum computing, electronics and photonics and bio- and soft-materials."

NSF's newest MRSEC at Columbia University will have two interdisciplinary research groups (IRGs) that build higher dimensional materials from lower dimensional structures and with unprecedented control. One of the research groups will study how 2-D materials interact to create new physical phenomena to potentially be integrated into electronic devices, and the other research group may establish a new type of periodic table by using molecular clusters to assemble materials, which could generate new electronic and magnetic materials of technological importance.

Columbia will lead the MRSEC and partner with City College of New York, Harvard University, Barnard College, the University of the Virgin Islands, Brookhaven National Laboratory, IBM and DuPont. The partners will work together to develop educational outreach activities for nearby K-12 schools.

The other 11 MRSEC awards, made to existing NSF MRSECs, also represent melting pots of cutting-edge materials science and engineering, and in most cases, the centers will take on new materials research and focus on education:

The Brandeis University MRSEC, studying bioinspired soft materials, startedin 2008, will add a second IRG. Employing fundamentally new approaches, the center ultimately could have significant societal impacts. The initial research group's discoveries may be useful for more targeted drug delivery systems in the future. The new IRG hopes to develop new materials for artificial muscles, self-pumping fluids and self-healing materials. This MRSEC runs a multi-level outreach and education program that includes exhibits at the Acton, Mass., Discovery Museum and a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.

Starting in 1961 as a Materials Research Laboratory, the University of Chicago center became a MRSEC in 1994, supporting innovative research focused on investigating a fairly broad range of materials. The center's research is aimed at helping in design and synthesis of active materials that mimic behavior of living cells, which could have device applications such as self-propelled robotics.

Another focus is the development of artificial quantum coherent materials with tunable properties; this is important for future quantum information technologies. Goals include advancing applications in quantum sensing, fabricating materials for quantum information as well as creating the next generation of characterization tools for traditional materials. Through three IRGs, the center is a nexus for collaboration between Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago and a Partnership for Research and Education in Materials at the City College of New York. Underserved area students benefit from MRSEC-sponsored after-school science clubs as just one part of its extensive outreach program.

University of Colorado at Boulder's Soft Materials Research Center will add a second IRG this year that proposes an exciting new area that will use "thiol-ene click chemistry" to develop inexpensive synthetic analogs of DNA. Rather than a specific single reaction, click chemistry aims to create products that follow examples in nature. In this case, the DNA analogs would offer a greater range of chemical properties than those exhibited by natural nucleic acids. The pioneering work is speculated to take molecular biology to the next level and will likely lead to a new field. The center already has a wide variety of outreach programs, including a family science show and a Pathways program that helps underrepresented high school students transition successfully to and through college.

An MRL since 1961, Harvard University's center became a MRSEC in 1994 and supports soft matter science through three IRGs. One of its IRGs aims to advance the theory of flow and mixing of viscoelastic materials in microfluidics, which would significantly advance 3D printing. Another of the IRGs could impact mechanical devices for prosthetics. One of its most well-known (and most popular) outreach programs is its Science and Cooking lecture series, featuring faculty and well-known chefs. The Harvard MRSEC is also developing special initiatives to bring returning veterans into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

The University of Minnesota MRSEC, originally awarded in 1998, is founded upon three IRGs: one whose advancements in basic science could provide new options for energy efficiency, including the use of superconductors, information storage and solid-state lighting; another that will work on a solvent-free process for producing nanocrystal-based thin films that would be environmentally and industrially appealing; and the other, whose work involves block copolymers that could impact myriad technologies, such as membranes for chemical separations, water purification and battery separators. Outreach includes--among other things--a new residential camp for Native American students.

Started as an MRL in 1961, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) MRSECbecame a MRSEC in 1994 with three IRGs. The eventual societal benefits of the MRSEC research might be felt in diverse aspects of modern life including possible transformational impacts in communications and computation infrastructure, new physical and biological knowledge and materials relevant to biomedical applications. One of the IRGs will work to improve how synthetic gels mimic natural materials' properties, and another's focus on complex oxides could specifically impact development of future fuel cell technologies and information storage. The center offers a wide variety of educational outreach programs at all levels, including MIT Museum Second Fridays and an annual citywide Cambridge Science Festival.

Begun in 2002, the University of Nebraska Polarization and Spin Phenomena in Nanoferroic Structures MRSEC is likely to have a significant impact that results in energy-efficient electronic devices. Its IRG that will study non-linear, magnetoelectric effects in thin films could revolutionize certain segments of the electronics industry. The other IRG will likely impact low-power switches and logic electronic devices, which could lead to energy-efficient solid state electronics. Educational activities are varied and include research experience programs, a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physical Sciences and a new "Bridge Program" that will partner with three minority-serving institutions of higher education.

The New York University MRSEC that began in 2008 adds a second IRG that will study designer molecular crystals that have potential applications in pharmaceuticals, organic electronics and coatings. Its initial IRG also works on improving materials for disruptive technologies, for example optical computing. Educational and outreach activities, such as a Scientific Frontiers Program, a Biobusthat delivers materials science lessons and teacher training on wheels and Science Video Vignettes that spark interest in STEM among thousands of NYC K-12 students, most from underrepresented and economically disadvantaged groups.

The Ohio State University Center for Emerging Materials, which has been a MRSEC since 2008, adds a third IRG and could impact spintronic, electronic and optoelectronic device development and even quantum information science. This new IRG, with research in non-linear spin transport, could lead to new spintronic devices such as low power consumption interconnects, spin-based information processing devices, spin amplifiers and spin logic/memories. Additionally, one of the other two IRGs' research may contribute to the design of magnetic memory devices and magnetic sensors. The other will study a new family of "chemically functionalizable" and "electronically tunable" 2D materials, which could assist in developing improved next-generation applications in opto-electronics and solid state electronics. One of this center's new educational outreach tactics will enhance its vibrant Research Experience for Undergraduates and Scientific Thinkers programs to more effectively widen the STEM pathway.

Started in 2000, the Penn State University Center for Nanoscale Science has four IRGs with potential impacts in several areas of science. The first IRG will continue its work to discover new metal oxide compounds that could have potential applications in several new technologies. Another IRG has potential to aid the design of new materials with bio-inspired functions. Another will study a new class of materials that could have bearing on energy conversion and energy conservation. The final IRG could help develop the next generation of fabrication methods. From smartphone software to hands-on materials science kits, the center reaches more than 100,000 museum-goers annually, and that is only a portion of its educational outreach.

The Princeton University Center for Complex Materials has existed since 1994 and is currently organized into three IRGs. One of the IRG's work will likely impact spintronics and quantum information technology. Another IRG could have impact on organic electronics, and the third IRG is likely to uncover interesting discoveries in fundamental aspects of quantum systems and thus impact our understanding of materials for quantum information technology. Again, this center too has a broad array of education projects, which only partially includes a rigorous three-week science camp and eight science fairs per year.

"The MRSEC centers provide leadership for the country concerning new materials and new materials phenomena that could ultimately address national needs, including sustainability and innovation," Gavin said. "We are especially excited about the international, industrial and national laboratories' collaborations that will give junior researchers in the centers experiences valuable to their lives as scientists and engineers."

More detailed and technical information is available for each of these centers on the NSF MRSEC website.

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