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Nanoscale research receives big boost

September 30, 2005 By Renee Meiller

The National Science Foundation has awarded the UW–Madison Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) nearly $14.8 million over the next six years to continue its leading-edge research on the interfaces of materials at the nanoscale.

At this scale, materials are so minute that scientists often study or manipulate them atom-by-atom. The work could have wide-ranging applications in electronics and biology, including the use of atomic-scale materials to direct the growth and differentiation of embryonic stem cells.

Initially established in 1996, the interdisciplinary center combines the expertise of more than 30 faculty in 13 UW–Madison departments and includes nearly 40 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers and about 20 undergraduate students. It was one of 11 re-competing nanotechnology centers to receive recent NSF funding.

“These are extremely, extremely competitive grants,” says Juan de Pablo, a professor of chemical and biological engineering and the center’s director. “Every major university would like to have a center like this.”

With its renewed funding, and with a host of fresh faculty faces on board, the UW–Madison center will embark on several new areas of study, says de Pablo.

One interdisciplinary research group will design liquid-crystalline-based materials that could give scientists spatial and temporal control over the chemical functionality and physical properties of interfaces. “These materials, if successful, could be used to design new sensors for various classes of pathogens, viruses, proteins or toxic chemicals,” he says. “And they could be used to influence or guide the growth and differentiation of cells, including human embryonic cells.”

Under a secondary aspect of that work, researchers in the group will design substrates, or surfaces, with a controlled chemistry and nanoscale topography. “They will use this ability, again, to control the growth and differentiation of stem cells, something that no one else has done and is very unique to our group,” says de Pablo.

Another research group will study the interfaces between inorganic materials, such as traditional gallium-nitride semiconductors, and organic molecular structures. The scientists’ goal is to increase their understanding of those interfaces so that eventually, they can build “hybrid” organic-inorganic electronic devices with new and enhanced properties. The applications of such devices could range from more efficient lighting to chemical and biological sensing.

Drawing on tremendous expertise on integration of materials on silicon, he says, a final research focus now will address semiconductor nanomembranes, a new form of nanomaterial, and implementing them initially in silicon, the most widely used semiconductor. These membranes have unique electronic and mechanical properties. Combined with their extreme flexibility, structural perfection and transferability to many “host” materials, they offer the potential for significant technological advances in flexible electronics, quantum computation, and in biological and environmental sensing.

In addition to its three core research areas, every year the center also sponsors four or five seed research projects from throughout the UW–Madison campus. The UW–Madison Advanced Materials Industrial Consortium enables the campus to share its discoveries with industry.

The consortium is actively recruiting Midwest companies, says de Pablo. “This is a portal, basically, to most of the advanced materials research that’s going on around campus,” he says. “Companies can recruit students, meet them, see what exciting ideas are brewing on campus, and get access to technology.”

In fact, says dePablo, a number of UW–Madison spin-off companies have ties to the center, including: nPoint, founded by engineering professor Max Lagally; Platypus Technologies, co-founded by engineering professor Nicholas Abbott); Imago, founded by former engineering professor Tom Kelly; and Virent Energy Systems, founded by engineering professor James Dumesic.

Among its initiatives, MRSEC also purchases state-of-the-art research instrumentation and makes it available to researchers from both the university and industry.

Ultimately, says dePablo, MRSEC provides a unique educational, research and technology-transfer setting in which the traditional boundaries of science disciplines are all but nonexistent.

“We bring people from physics, chemistry, engineering, biology, pharmacy, and the veterinary school to work together on these projects of common interest,” he says. “And we provide a forum for all of these people to interact and for all of the students to work together and advance these areas.”