Oct. 1, 1998
Vol. 18, No. 1

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    $7.2 million grant will help take scientists off road map

    Scientists at the University's Materials Research Science and Engineering Center plan to use their new four-year, $7.2 million National Science Foundation grant to take them off the map.

    Off-the-road map research, as high-tech industrial researchers call it, is long-term, high-risk and, if successful, high-payoff. That is exactly the route the center's interdisciplinary research groups have charted for themselves.

    "As the timeline for research in industrial labs continues to shrink, the role that universities play in doing long-range research is going to be even more important," said Steven Sibener, Principal Investigator, Materials Center Director and Professor in Chemistry.

    "Long-range research is getting done in fewer and fewer industrial laboratories. That's the business we're in," added Sibener. "We are the incubator for new ideas, the basic research engine that will power us to the new technologies, and in fact, whole new industries of the future."

    The MRSEC addresses scientific problems of a scope and complexity that generally go beyond the capability of individuals working alone. The center consists of 26 collaborating biologists, chemists, computer scientists, geophysicists, mathematicians and physicists from the University, several researchers from the materials science division of Argonne National Laboratory, and more than 100 graduate, undergraduate and postdoctoral researchers.

    The NSF grant will support the center's continuing research interests in chemical synthesis, nano-scale materials design, the quantum properties of exotic materials, the properties of interfaces as thin as a molecule and the flow behavior of granular materials and liquids.

    The grant also will help develop a new research emphasis in biomaterials, which, Sibener said, "we hope to see grow into a key part of our center during the next four years."

    Synthetic chemists already can make molecules that have special electrical or optical properties, but the center's scientists are taking that work one step further. They are figuring out ways to get molecules to assemble themselves in specific, organized patterns, following either nature's own tendencies for self-organization or using exquisitely delicate methods of guiding such assembly. "We want to make materials that have properties that nature doesn't give us," Sibener said.

    Another ongoing research effort is aimed at learning the basic electronic and magnetic properties of materials needed for the design of new, technologically useful materials.

    "Understanding the electronic, magnetic and optical properties of matter at the most fundamental level is crucial to develop the new materials needed for making advanced devices, such as computer memory," Sibener said. "It's the basic science, the scientific foundation that is still needed for many applications to be realized. This is becoming increasingly important as we enter the new realm of molecular electronics."

    Another leading area of Chicago's expertise focuses on the properties of molecules that stick to surfaces. "In the past, the bulk properties of matter governed the behavior of solid state electronics. The diminishing size of integrated circuits now means that the properties of atoms located either at or near the interface between materials dominate the behavior of ever smaller devices," said Sibener.

    The MRSEC will also continue its research effort that is devoted to understanding the flow behavior of sand and other granular matter. Understanding such behavior is central to the design of equipment for handling granular materials in the construction, pharmaceutical, agricultural, mining and chemical industries. Chicago has one of the world's leading groups in this research area.

    The University was one of 12 institutions nationwide to receive an NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Center grant following a 12-month competition involving more than 100 proposals. Grant recipients are charged with serving as top-flight research centers as well as regional nodes of excellence for education, science and technology.

    The MRSEC, for example, shares its findings with industry through many collaborations as well as by hosting a steady stream of industrial visitors and symposia of industrial and academic interest.

    In a joint program with the University's Business School, the center also participates in the New Product Laboratory. Here, both doctoral and M.B.A. students work together to examine technical or business issues associated with a potential new process or product.

    "This gives unusually broad exposure to the science graduate students and business school participants, who all participate in both the technical and business aspects of the project," Sibener said.

    In public outreach, the center places a special emphasis on attracting women and minorities to science through a number of programs. They include a national Research Experience for Undergraduates summer program, sponsorship of the Young Scholars Program for Mathematically Talented High School Students and the Partners in Science Program for minority students at Hartigan School, a Chicago public school (K-8).

    Center experts also work with local museums, including the Museum of Science and Industry, helping to plan and update exhibits.

    In recent years, the center's alumni have gone on to positions at research centers such as Lucent/Bell Labs, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    "What makes the place hop are the students and postdocs," Sibener said. "They're exposed to interdisciplinary research from day one. This is just the training they need for the future. Our emphasis on tackling problems with the combined efforts of theoretical and experimental researchers is a hallmark of Chicago's effort in materials research."