The National Science Foundation has awarded funding to eight Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs) for transdisciplinary work that covers all areas of materials science and helps foster collaborations on a national and international level. These six-year awards represent a significant new investment in material science exceeding $145M.
The centers support some of the world’s best multi- and inter-disciplinary materials research and education addressing complex fundamental problems, such as taking miniaturization to its ultimate limit or creating atomically thin “paper” materials that self-fold into incredibly responsive structures with lateral features at the micron to nanometer scale. While some research centers in other disciplines may have one specific focus or mission, MRSECs serve primarily as a hub of broad collaboration where diverse research interests range more broadly, addressing several complex scientific questions or issues.
"These awards are representative of the incredibly broad, highly multidisciplinary research portfolio spanning all of the division-supported research areas," said Linda Sapochak, director of the NSF Division of Materials Research. "These multidisciplinary awards will be forging new materials-research frontiers through team-based development of novel electronic and photonic materials relevant to future high-tech applications." Sean L. Jones, the deputy division director noted that these awards will have a far-reaching impact on fields ranging from telecommunications and clean energy to quantum information sciences.
Of the eight center awards, three—the University of Texas-Austin, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Washington—are new. The remaining awards, made to existing NSF MRSECs, also represent highly vibrant environments of continuous cutting-edge materials science and engineering; in most cases, the centers are taking on new materials research directions complemented by creative and diverse education and outreach foci.
New Centers, New Discoveries
University of Texas-Austin. The new MRSEC at UT Austin, the Center for Dynamics and Control of Materials seeks to extend the traditional paradigm of materials research beyond the study of behavior in or near equilibrium to encompass the understanding and control of materials over extended temporal and spatial scales. The Center supports research on nanocomposite materials that combine inorganic and organic components, with applications in energy storage and filtration membranes, and on approaches for exploiting light to achieve dynamic, quantum control of materials. Through the concept of a Materials Community of Practice, the Center integrates interdisciplinary materials research with initiatives in education, outreach, and the promotion of diversity. The Center involves elementary school teachers in materials research to improve teacher efficacy and student engagement with science at a formative age. Outreach to the public via hands-on demonstrations and collaborations between artists and materials researchers brings materials science and technology to new audiences who might not otherwise be engaged. And partnerships with industry and the entrepreneurial community provide participants with experiences and connections to prepare them for success in a broad range of careers.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The mission of the new Illinois MRSEC is to perform fundamental, innovative research that’s broadly centered on understanding the dynamic properties of materials. In addition, the Center strives to support interdisciplinary education and training of students in materials design, understanding, and application, while also developing science that forms the basis for new technologies in electronics, information storage, photonics, and biomaterials that will greatly benefit society. The Illinois MRSEC leverages synergies such as shared facilities (based in the Illinois Materials Research Lab) and resources such as computation supported by NCSA/Blue Waters; the development of cutting-edge materials synthesis and characterization tools; an intellectual focus on new dynamical regimes of materials; enhanced integration of education and outreach with world-class research; a focus on improving scientific communication; and increased diversity leading to more creative and productive research.
University of Washington. The third new MRSEC recipient, the University of Washington Molecular Engineering Materials Center (MEM-C) is forging new materials-research frontiers through team-based development of novel electronic and photonic materials relevant to future high-tech applications. Encompassing innovations in synthesis, characterization, theory, and application, the MRSEC integrates campus student, faculty, facility, and research, both programmatically and physically. A competitive seed program funds high-risk high-reward projects in emerging areas, expanding the MRSEC’s impact. While developing the materials underpinnings of future advanced technologies, MEM-C provides advanced interdisciplinary education, training, diversity and outreach experience, as well as mentorship to high school, undergraduate, and graduate students from all corners of campus and the Puget Sound region. MEM-C's integrated community activities emphasize aggressive STEM diversification and community involvement through two signature programs: promotion of (re)entry of veterans into STEM career tracks, and early recruitment/mentorship of students to STEM from underrepresented/underserved regional high schools. Additional activities include REU/RET programs, regional K-20 outreach, regional partnerships (such as the Pacific Science Center) for public engagement, and interdisciplinary curriculum development.
Awards to Existing MRSECs
University of California, Santa Barbara. Awards made to existing centers include the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which develops and sustains the necessary human and physical infrastructure to advance materials research, education, and training in an integrative manner. Research in the different Interdisciplinary Research Groups or IRGs integrates the preparation of new materials with the development of forefront theories to understand them, and advanced tools to measure materials properties, in order to address problems in interdisciplinary materials research. Seed projects encourage new researchers venturing into exciting research directions to join the Center. A strong emphasis placed on shared experimental facilities supports materials research at the UCSB campus, in addition to providing much-needed resources to researchers in nearby communities while simultaneously strengthening interaction with industry. The Center strives to create jobs through start-ups and develop work-force preparedness through award-winning education and outreach efforts. The three interdisciplinary research groups of the UCSB MRSEC encompass the arc from hard magnetic intermetallic materials and their microstructure, to chemistry and engineering of an underexplored class of polymeric materials, to biomaterials, and bioinspired processing.
Cornell Center for Materials Research. The central mission of the Cornell Center for Materials Research, which has existed since 1960, is to explore and advance the design, control, and fundamental understanding of materials through collaborative experimental and theoretical studies. The Center focuses on forefront problems that require the combined expertise of interdisciplinary teams of Cornell researchers and external collaborators. The goal of the research program is to explore fundamental challenges in interdisciplinary materials research that both impede technological progress and have a scope and complexity that require the sustained contribution of researchers from multiple disciplines. The CCMR research program is organized into three IRGs and a number of Seeds (smaller groups exploring new topics). Three other activities complete the CCMR’s mission: educational outreach to K-12 teachers, students, and undergraduates; industrial outreach and knowledge transfer; and the operation of Shared Facilities that serve the broader materials research community, both on- and off-campus. The research focus ranges from the aim to discover, understand, and apply new mechanisms for controlling spins in magnetic devices, to understand, create, and harness exceptionally strong light-matter interactions for scientific discoveries and future photonic information processing technology, and, to explore the fundamental challenges associated with transducing small local signals (physical, chemical, etc.) into global observable changes at nanoscale dimensions (origami and kirigami).
Northwestern University Materials Research Science and Engineering Center. Also created in the early 1960s, this Center integrates materials research, education, and outreach through two IRGs and with external partners in academia, industry, national laboratories, and museums, both domestically and abroad. NU-MRSEC’s research informs a diverse range of education and outreach activities that target all levels including postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, K-12 students/teachers, and the general public. Outreach examples include Transdisciplinary Engineering and Theater Workshops that create original science-themed plays and Jugando con la Ciencia (Playing with Science) that translates outreach curricula and texts into Spanish. This MRSEC explores how heterojunctions consisting of nanoelectronic materials of differing dimensionality are influenced by dielectric screening, electronic band/level offsets, and interfacial regions, and aims to develop new heteroanionic materials with tunable electronic, ionic, thermal, and optical properties, which are otherwise inaccessible from simpler homoanionic structures and chemistries.
University of Pennsylvania’s Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter. The fourth award to an existing Center was made to the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter (LRSM) at the University of Pennsylvania. The University created LRSM in 1960, and the Center served as among the very first interdisciplinary academic institutes for materials research in the United States. Its research mission is to discover new materials and identify innovative applications through collaborative, interdisciplinary research, including design, synthesis, characterization, theory and modeling of materials. The 2017-23 LRSM MRSEC research will elucidate materials that extend from “soft” to “hard” matter and vary widely, ranging from atomic/molecular glasses and nanocrystals to liquid crystals and colloids to polymers and fibrous biomaterials. Recurrent themes are networks, interfaces, assembly, design rules, collective interactions, and the goal to create advanced materials with unique properties and applications. Long-range practical goals include aims to design tough disordered solids, to synthesize responsive and self-reinforcing fibrous networks, and to create static and reconfigurable architectures for nano-crystals which impart enhanced sensitivity to electric and magnetic fields. The LRSM MRSEC also sustains an array of education and human resources development activities. Outreach impact will extend from K-12 students and their teachers to undergraduates and faculty at minority serving institutions to scientists at nearby industrial, government, and academic institutions, and to the public.
University of Wisconsin-Madison. This MRSEC brings together teams of researchers—undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty—from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to address a critical void in knowledge involving disorder in materials, and the emergence of order from disordered materials. The research has far-reaching impact on fields ranging from telecommunications, clean energy, and quantum information sciences. The Center integrates the discovery and sharing of new knowledge with national leadership in development and dissemination of research-inspired educational materials for K-12 and the public, innovative programs that broaden participation of groups underrepresented in STEM fields, development of new characterization facilities that advance data analysis and sharing, industry outreach to promote regional economic development, and professional development and international opportunities that train the next-generation US workforce. The research goals of the UW MRSEC are to design, synthesize and understand disorder and the emergence of order across a wide range of materials platforms. The Center unites 44 senior investigators from nine disciplines and integrates advances in synthesis, structural characterization, theory/simulation, property evaluation and applications. Center research is organized into two IRGs addressing complex challenges involving metals, inorganic oxides, semiconductors and complex organic molecular assemblies.
“The MRSEC centers provide leadership for the country concerning new materials and new materials phenomena addressing national needs, including sustainability and innovation,” said Sapochak. “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, and the incredibly diverse and highly skilled personnel participation.”
With these awards, there are currently a total of 20 MRSECs that involve more than 2,200 participants ranging from faculty and post docs to graduate students, undergraduate students, and technicians.