NSF renews, expands mission of UW–Madison materials research center
With $18 million over six years, the National Science Foundation is expanding the mission of one of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s most prolific and prestigious interdisciplinary research centers.
The Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) on Nanostructured Interfaces includes more than 40 faculty and 50 students from across the UW–Madison campus. It now will serve as a network of regional, national and international collaborations that will tackle several grand challenges of materials research and engineering.
During the last six years, MRSEC researchers have published more than 800 papers in scientific journals, delivered more than 600 invited talks and keynote lectures around the world and have interacted through diverse forums with more than 50,000 children, adults and teachers. In the last five years, MRSEC provided facilities and support to 1,400 users across campus and more than 65 Wisconsin companies. Its researchers have filed 34 patent applications and spawned multiple successful spin-off companies including Platypus Technologies, nPoint, Inc., and SonoPlot, among others.
“We have leveraged the great breadth of scientific and engineering talent at UW–Madison by emphasizing interdisciplinary research,” says College of Engineering Dean Paul Peercy. “The power of this approach is evident in the great success of MRSEC. With this NSF renewal, the impact on education, research and the economy will continue to grow.”
The newly funded MRSEC will focus its work through three new interdisciplinary research groups. The first seeks to create new semiconductors and will explore new multi-element compounds through the manipulation of strain, dimensions and deformability. A fundamental understanding of phenomena in this area will enable researchers to create entirely new materials for technologies ranging from sensors and solar cells to uses not yet conceived.
“Semiconductor materials have and will continue to drive large sectors of the world economy,” says center director and Howard Curler Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Juan de Pablo. “The work of our first two research groups will find direct applications in new technology for high-speed electronics, sensors and solar cells, to name a few technology areas.”
The second group will study molecular and electronic dynamics where carbon-based compounds meet inorganic compounds. Its goals are to simultaneously probe the transport of energy and molecular motion one electron at a time, to achieve fundamental understanding of such dynamics, and to gain unprecedented levels of control over these materials interfaces and their preparation.
A third team will build knowledge about coupling structural, mechanical and interfacial interactions in liquid crystalline materials through an emphasis on defect manipulation, nucleation, mechanical strain and growth. Liquid crystals have the properties of both conventional liquids and solid crystals, with many phases in between. Through techniques such as confinement, nanoscale patterning and the addition of multifunctional polymers that induce structural order in the liquid crystals, the group will create new classes of materials that have applications in engineering, biology and medicine including separations technologies, drug delivery, nanoscale materials processing technologies and biosensors among others.
MRSEC will include an industrial consortium whose membership will increase to 40 companies. The organization will help member companies implement technology developed by the center, and will serve to strengthen ties between UW–Madison and industry.
“Building on our history of successful start-ups, this new center will foster an even greater entrepreneurial climate to create new companies and jobs for Wisconsin and beyond,” says de Pablo. “Our graduate and undergraduate students will benefit from an extraordinary interdisciplinary environment designed to educate and prepare the next generation of leaders in materials science and engineering.”
MRSEC also will build on its tradition of excellence in education and outreach to communicate the excitement of cutting-edge science to large numbers of K–12 students and teachers. In collaboration with MRSEC students and faculty, the center’s education and outreach staff will continue to develop educational products and state-of-the-art content that draw on materials science to motivate students from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in science and engineering. Additionally, through an international program based on partnerships with premier universities on four continents, UW–Madison students will experience different cultures and a wide array of world-class research groups around the globe.