Dec. 5, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 5

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    Materials research center gets renewal grant of $14.4 million

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    This false-colored image shows one-micrometer- diameter silica spheres dispersed in water and organized by an array of holographic optical tweezers. Each optical tweezer is a tiny tractor beam holding the particle in place in three dimensions. The tweezers, developed with support from the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, can project arbitrary three-dimensional patterns of optical traps. Green particles are trapped, while purple particles float freely.
    What began as two entirely separate research projects have come together to help clarify a poorly understood behavior of lung surfactant, the lack of which annually leads to more than 150,000 new cases of both neonatal and acute RDS, or respiratory distress syndrome. This line of research is among the projects in the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center that just received an unprecedented six-year, $14.4 million renewal grant from the National Science Foundation.

    The center’s Thomas Witten, Professor in Physics and the College, was delving into the physics of crumpled paper and other two-dimensional materials. Ka Yee Lee, Associate Professor in Chemistry and the College, was sorting out the protein-lipid interactions in human lung surfactant, which makes breathing easier. Together they strive for breakthroughs in the understanding of lung surfactant that could ultimately lead to improved therapeutic treatments for RDS.

    All told, the center brings together a collaboration of 30 scientists in the biological and physical sciences at the University and Argonne National Laboratory. “This group of faculty stuck their heads together and looked at the next generation of ideas that will lead to new materials and new applications. But first you need to provide a fundamental scientific basis for these advances, and that’s where we are particularly strong,” said Center Director Heinrich Jaeger.

    The Chicago Materials Research Center is among 27 MRSECs nationwide supported by the NSF, and among the 12 MRSECs awarded funding during the most recent competition. As Jaeger explained, the center’s approach to incubating and fostering cutting-edge materials is unique among such centers.

    “We are organizing our research along concepts rather than materials. We are concept-driven,” said Jaeger, Professor in Physics and the College. Center research proceeds along five new research themes:

    • Understanding and controlling the dynamics of liquids and elastic solids, which affect the flow, deformation and growth of materials; the crumpling and buckling phenomena of the Witten-Lee project falls into this category.

    • Stage-by-stage assembly of molecular materials; “This is part of an emerging realization that a bottom-up assembly of materials is really the ticket for next-generation applications,” Jaeger said. The conventional approach is to build structures from the top down, creating ever-finer features from a larger block of material. But technological limitations make this approach increasingly difficult for features smaller than 100 nanometers, or the width of approximately 1,000 atoms. Materials Research Center scientists instead are working to create structure from the bottom up by guiding pattern formation with templates made of atoms and molecules.

    • The phenomenon of jamming; this research group exploits an idea that originated with Sidney Nagel, the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor in Physics and the College, and Andrea Liu of the University of California, Los Angeles. The idea is that jamming applies equally to spinning electrons, flowing mustard seeds and cars driving on a highway. In each case, there are configurations, far away from equilibrium, into which these systems evolve and then jam. “We ask, how do they jam, how do they unjam, how do we control that, and how can we design materials that circumvent jamming,” Jaeger said.

    • Bio-interfacial science; “Here the goal is to develop new routes for designing and controlling the interface between biological and non-biological materials,” Jaeger said. It is all part of an effort to design new classes of biochips, “but in order to do that, we take our cues from biology,” he said. The way pollen sticks selectively to only certain types of plants already has inspired a project at the University to develop a new type of glue. “It happens to be compatible with environmental conditions that are usually detrimental to many man-made epoxies,” he said.

    • Creating nanostructured materials with tunable electronic and optical properties; Chicago researchers working on this issue will assemble small nanoscale building blocks into larger arrays to design structures with properties that would otherwise not be found in nature.

    In addition to conducting research, the center also maintains an active educational outreach program that operates at all levels, from kindergarten through college. The program is especially active at the Hartigan School and the Museum of Science and Industry.

    The center also sponsors an intensive summer Research Experience for Undergraduates Program, internships for high-school students, a summer mathematics program for high-school teachers, and separate mathematics programs for Chicago public school teachers and students in grades 7 through 12.

    Additionally, the center operates a highly successful industrial outreach and knowledge transfer program, and it supports eight shared experimental facilities that are vital to its research projects, Jaeger said.