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09/27/2000 07:00:00

NSF awards $9.6 million for materials research center at Caltech

The National Science Foundation today awarded $9.6 million in start-up funding for the Center for the Science and Engineering of Materials (CSEM) at the California Institute of Technology. The new center pioneers a number of exotic and futuristic materials and applications such as "liquid" metals, responsive gels, and tiny medical sensors.

The CSEM will be one of four new National Science Foundation-funded centers in the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) program. Each of the four new centers will be in keeping with the MRSEC's mission "to undertake materials research of scope and complexity that would not be feasible under traditional funding of individual research projects."

The Caltech center will focus on four areas of research that are already emerging as unique, high-impact activities on campus, says Julia Kornfield, associate professor of chemical engineering at Caltech and director of the center.

"We've chosen four major areas of scientific interest that will help solve critical societal needs of the twenty-first century," says Kornfield. "We'll have strong ties to industrial and other laboratories, and we'll provide a substantial educational program for public schools and other institutions."

The four major areas will be biological synthesis and assembly of macromolecular materials, bulk metallic glasses and composites, mesophotonic materials, and ferroelectric thin films.

The biosynthesis initiative of the center will be led by David Tirrell, chair of Caltech's Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. Research efforts will include the use of artificial proteins to make polymers with exquisite control of properties, and responsive polymers and gels for biomedical and industrial applications, including materials for entrapment of cells in tissue engineering or biosensors.

"This new technology takes advantage of traditional materials properties and biological functions such as signaling and information transfer," Tirrell says.

The team investigating glassy metallic alloys will be led by Bill Johnson, a professor of materials science at Caltech. This group will pursue basic science and new engineering strategies that will lead to custom-designed materials with desirable characteristics such as ultrahigh strength, exceptional elasticity, and ease of fabrication into complex parts.

The effort toward mesophotonics will be led by Harry Atwater of the Caltech applied physics faculty. Mesophotonic devices are optical components and devices at or below the wavelength of light. Future applications include engineered optical probes for biology and medicine, and photonic devices that could replace certain electrical devices in telecommunications and computing.

Kaushik Bhattacharya, professor of applied mechanics and mechanical engineering, will lead research to enable microactuators based on high strain ferroelectrics. The team's integrated simulation and experimental approach promises to reveal the microscopic basis of large strain behavior in this class of materials.

The new center will be interdisciplinary, not only because researchers >from varied backgrounds will work in each area, but also because the areas themselves overlap, Kornfield says. The self-assembly of nanostructured materials is applicable to the mesophotonics area as well as to the biological synthesis area, she says.

"Caltech provides an excellent setting for this ambitious center due to the extensive investments that the Institute has made over the past decade, building the campus-wide activities and facilities in materials research. And strong institutional commitments to technology transfer and educational outreach will ensure that the impact of this center is felt far beyond the Caltech campus," says Kornfield.

Outreach programs will enrich educational opportunities in science and engineering for underrepresented minority students at the undergraduate, middle school and high school levels. The center will establish a materials pPartnership between Caltech and nearby California State University, Los Angeles, that will involve CSULA students and faculty in CSEM research, and foster materials research and curriculum on the CSULA campus.

The center will also establish an extensive network of research collaborations in the private sector with companies such as Lucent, Exxon, Dow, Procter and Gamble, 3M, and General Motors, and with government laboratories such as JPL and Brookhaven.

Written by Robert Tindol