09/26/2005 07:00:00

NSF Awards $11.16 Million to Caltech's Center for the Science and Engineering of Materials

PASADENA--The National Science Foundation today awarded $11.16 million to the Center for the Science and Engineering of Materials (CSEM) at the California Institute of Technology. The renewal funding will allow the center to continue its work in exotic and futuristic materials applications, such as macromolecular materials, ferroelectric photonics, novel composites of glass and metals, spintronic devices, and fuel cells.

According to Harry Atwater, director of the center and an engineering professor at Caltech, the new funding will allow 18 Caltech faculty members and numerous graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to pursue novel research programs that appear to be especially promising.

"The center has been operating since September of 2000, but the renewal procedure was highly competitive," Atwater said. 'We're delighted to receive the NSF funding."

According to Atwater, the center will focus on three major interdisciplinary areas of materials research, and will also devote resources to two "seed" projects, albeit on a smaller scale. The major interdisciplinary areas are the following:

-Macromolecular materials. One of the principal goals is to produce tailored responses to cell adhesion so that artificial implants and transplants will work better. A longstanding problem with tissue transplants is rejection by the patient's own immune system, and evidence shows that novel ways of attending to the microscopic details of cellular response could trick the immune system into thinking that the foreign body "looks" like the rest of the body at the microscopic level. Led by David Tirrell, chair of Caltech's Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, the effort in cell adhesion also demonstrates the highly interdisciplinary nature of the center, because chemists, chemical engineers, biologists, engineers, and others will all be involved in the work.

-A new research emphasis for the center will be ferroelectric photonic materials. This research involves the changing of optical properties of materials used to modulate light from lasers. Normally, the optical properties of a material, such as the refractive index, cannot be tuned after fabrication-which explains why eyeglass wearers must each have their own individual prescriptions. But there are situations in which engineers would like to tune the transparency or frequency response of optical devices after fabrication by simply applying a voltage-and ferroelectric materials let you do just that. This ability to harness and tune optical properties after fabrication will open up such applications as tunable microdevices for "photonic integrated circuits" that would lead to much greater compactness, lower power demands, and lower costs. This area of the center is led by Kaushik Bhattacharya, professor of mechanics and materials science.

-The third area, bulk materials and composites, is carried over from the center's beginnings in 2000. Led by Bill Johnson, the Mettler Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, the effort will focus on the fabrication processes that could combine liquid and glassy metals (i.e., materials with no crystalline structure) with nanoscale crystals to exploit the unique mechanical attributes of each. The researchers think they may succeed in creating a tough and ductile structural metal which has two to three times the strength of steel or titanium. If cost-effective, such a material could conceivably replace steel in many types of structures.

The center will also provide funding for the following two seed projects, which are of limited duration and smaller scope:

-Research on spintronic materials will be led by Caltech physics professor Nai-Chang Yeh. A promising new research avenue in the physics of composite materials, spintronics seeks to exploit the quantum spin characteristics of electrons to operate electronic devices, rather than the moving of current through wires.

-New materials for the storage and conversions of methanol will be the focus of a group led by Associate Professor of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering Sossina Haile. The goal is to identify materials that are good at the conversion of hydrogen and carbon dioxide to methanol, and conversely, the materials that can best convert methanol to hydrogen for use as a fuel in fuel cells.

According to Atwater, the center will continue to be highly interdisciplinary, not only because researchers from four Caltech divisions will work on the projects, but also because the very nature of the projects draws upon expertise in several branches of science and engineering.

The center will also continue its ongoing efforts in education and public outreach. Current projects include a television series that will be titled Material World, and a materials partnership with Cal State Los Angeles. The latter program has been especially noteworthy in its ongoing efforts to foster materials research and curriculum on the CSULA campus.

The center will continue to build its already extensive network of research collaborations in the private sector with various companies, government laboratories, and other research institutions.

Atwater is the Hughes Professor and professor of applied physics and materials science.

Written by Robert Tindol