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October 3, 2017

Major NSF-sponsored materials research collaboration receives $15.6M grant

Written By: Will Cushman

A flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison interdisciplinary research center has received $15.6 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to pursue groundbreaking research on materials.

The grant will provide six years of funding for UW-Madison’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), which is directed through the College of Engineering but includes 30 affiliated faculty from nine departments across the university. MRSEC is one of 20 such NSF-funded centers that conduct fundamental materials research, education and outreach at the nation’s leading research institutions.

The funding marks more than two decades of NSF support for UW-Madison researchers’ quest to investigate fundamental, large-scale and complex questions in materials science. These central questions are best explored by large interdisciplinary teams, says Nick Abbott, director of MRSEC and John T. and Magdalen L. Sobota Professor and Hilldale Professor in chemical and biological engineering.

“These questions require large groups comprised of researchers with skills in synthesis and characterization of materials, materials processing and in theory and computation,” Abbott says. “Only with these interdisciplinary groups can we go after problems that are really difficult and that involve fundamental questions in materials-related areas. If we can address them, they will lead to breakthroughs that will transform our understanding of materials and lead to a new slate of technologies. It’s high-risk, high-reward research.”

It’s the high-risk nature of the research that makes NSF’s broad and flexible funding commitment so important, Abbott says. MRSEC-affiliated faculty enjoy the flexibility to exhaustively pursue fundamental problems—a painstaking process that can easily come to its natural conclusion without an elusive “eureka!” moment of discovery.

But this flexibility and long-term commitment has also produced pioneering breakthroughs—for example, the use of liquid crystals for sensing, with applications in wearable technologies that detect airborne toxic gases; or semiconductor synthesis from new materials, with broad implications for electronics. MRSEC researchers also have characterized the extremely efficient energy transfer capacity of carbon nanotubes; the property makes them a promising candidate for next-generation solar energy harvesting. And MRSEC faculty are pursuing breakthroughs in other materials.

One of those advances could come by way of better understanding glasses, which is a major thrust of MRSEC research today. Most people understand glass as a brittle, transparent material that is useful for making windowpanes, storage containers and smartphone screens, says Beckwith-Bascom Professor of materials science and engineering Paul Voyles, who also chairs the department. But that’s a rather narrow view of the broad class of materials.

Students in the Materials Science Center with the plasma focused ion beam microscope
Graduate students from the MRSEC interdisciplinary research groups are pictured in the Materials Science Center with the plasma focused ion beam microscope. The Materials Science Center is one of the College of Engineering shared facilities and is open to all researchers, including on campus, at other academic institutions and industrial users. This particular microscope was the first next-generation instrument of this type installed in the United States. Photo: Renee Meiller.

“Really, glasses are materials with a disordered atomic structure,” Voyles says. “There are the glasses most people are familiar with, but there are many types of glasses that people wouldn’t really recognize.”

These include plastic and metal glasses and might one day include entirely new categories of glasses if current MRSEC research proves successful, according to Mark Ediger, Hyuk Yu Professor of Chemistry and a co-investigator with Voyles.

“Our project seeks a fundamental understanding of glassy materials that enables the development of new glasses that might extend the life of machine tools or enable advances in quantum computing or lead to even better cell phone displays,” Ediger says.

Another major area of MRSEC research seeks to fabricate films out of complex oxides, which also has the potential to impact quantum information technologies, including quantum computing.

Complex oxides are oxygen-containing materials, often with unusual crystal structures, that exhibit surprising electronic, magnetic and optical properties when they are formed in a thin film. Tom Kuech, Milton J. and A. Maude Shoemaker and Beckwith-Bascom Professor in chemical and biological engineering, heads that research team, along with Paul Evans, a professor in materials science and engineering.

“The work that our interdisciplinary team from across the engineering and science disciplines is doing is focused on new means to form these materials into 2D and 3D structures, which will open up to us their remarkable properties,” Kuech says.

This will require much more sophisticated understanding of the materials, which will only come about through sustained investment in fundamental research—the type of investment that NSF’s MRSEC funding provides. The funding renewal is crucial, says Evans.

“NSF support really goes a long way at UW-Madison and has a significant and broad impact,” Evans says. “And that impact is underpinned by the basic science happening at MRSEC. The basic scientific research provides the foundation for highly valuable education and outreach activities.”

Along with potential scientific breakthroughs, MRSEC funds internationally recognized educational and outreach programs that support up-and-coming researchers and schoolchildren alike. The UW-Madison MRSEC has developed and distributed research-inspired educational kits and activities to teachers to help them teach basic materials science concepts in thousands of high school classrooms.

Abbott says the new funding will help MRSEC transition from physical kits to developing digital educational materials in the form of educational games, which could potentially impact millions of schoolchildren.

And MRSEC’s educational outreach goes well beyond the kits. Wendy Crone, Karen Thompson Medhi Professor in nuclear engineering and engineering physics, co-leads the MRSEC educational and outreach programs with Anne Lynn Gillian-Daniels, Director of the Interdisciplinary Education Group, and credits MRSEC with already impacting students around the globe.

“The UW-Madison MRSEC has been a national leader in education for decades, with measureable impact worldwide,” Crone says. “We have created science kits, teaching laboratories, web-based content for K-12 teachers, museum exhibits, outreach activities and now digital games.”

MRSEC’s educational products are so successful because they are developed with input from researchers and educators and extensively tested by students, Crone says. “The renewal funding will allow us to build on this legacy with exciting new content that engages even greater numbers of people,” she says.

MRSEC’s broad impact on campus also is tangible, Abbott says, noting that millions of dollars’ worth of scientific equipment has been purchased through MRSEC funds, including equipment that is available for use by industry and researchers both on and off the UW-Madison campus. MRSEC also runs the Advanced Materials Industrial Consortium, a group of companies that, together with MRSEC faculty and staff, provides invaluable professional development opportunities for UW-Madison students and researchers.

“There are many facets to MRSEC,” Abbott says.

And all of the facets add up to an exceptional home for the exchange of ideas and knowledge across disciplines, ultimately enhancing the educational mission of the university.