Center for Materials Innovation launched

New and improved consumer goods, better planes, vehicles and electronics, and new biomedical products that could lead to better pharmaceuticals and innovative medical devices are among the objectives of a new interdisciplinary center housed in Arts & Sciences.

The Center for Materials Innovation (CMI), located in the refurbished basement of Crow Hall, will enable collaborators from across the University to make basic and applied advances in materials research, eventually touching many aspects of daily life.

Moreover, the center brings together researchers, some world-renowned in their fields, to get a better understanding of fundamental processes in nature — such as magnetism — that are the bases for the development of increasingly smaller, more specialized novel materials.

Stuart A. Solin, Ph.D., the Charles M. Hohenberg Professor of Experimental Physics in Arts & Sciences, is director of the CMI. William E. Buhro, Ph.D., professor of chemistry in Arts & Sciences, is associate director.

Charter CMI members, who constituted a subcommittee that delved into what was needed to form the center, are: Pratim Biswas, Ph.D., the Stifel and Quinette Jens Professor of Environmental Engineering Science and director of the Environmental Engineering Science Program; Donald L. Elbert, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering; Ronald S. Indeck, Ph.D., the Das Family Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering; Kenneth F. Kelton, Ph.D., professor of physics; and Karen L. Wooley, Ph.D., professor of chemistry.

The center initially will be funded at more than $10 million for the next five years, according to Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. He said a portion of these funds will be supported by a gift from John F. McDonnell to the University’s campaign to endow three new professorships.

Two of the professorships will be in Arts & Sciences, the other in the School of Engineering & Applied Science.

McDonnell is chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees. He headed the initial phase of the Campaign for Washington University before it was publicly announced. He is the retired chairman of the board of the McDonnell Douglas Corp.

“We’re extremely grateful to John McDonnell for his support and encouragement of the Center for Materials Innovation,” Wrighton said. “This initiative provides an outstanding opportunity for synergy in materials research for existing studies and collaborations as well as future ones, and creates a research bridge between the schools of Arts & Sciences, Engineering & Applied Science and Medicine.

“The center will become a vital force for University-wide research and education and eventually for St. Louis and the Midwest at large. Researchers will have access to state-of-the-art equipment, facilities and instrumentation that in some cases is unique.”

In addition, Wrighton said, the schools of Arts & Sciences, Engineering & Applied Science and Medicine are making substantial contributions with faculty and research space for the center.

Edward S. Macias, Ph.D., executive vice chancellor and dean of Arts & Sciences, said, “Collaboration long has been a theme in Arts & Sciences, and the Center for Materials Innovation enables numerous researchers in Arts & Sciences to reach out to their colleagues in medicine and engineering in this exciting research area.

“With the quality of researchers working in the center and the excellent instrumentation available, there are limitless possibilities regarding the discoveries and developments that will come out. Having the center here is a boon for the University, the community and the entire region.”

Three years ago, Wrighton chaired a task force to consider developing a materials research center. When Solin came to the University from NEC Research Institute in Princeton, N.J., in October 2002, Wrighton transferred the chairmanship of the task force to him.

Solin then formed a Materials Task Force Subcommittee that produced a document proposing the center.

Solin has co-directed a materials research center at the University of Chicago and was a founding member and director of a materials center at Michigan State University.

Solin said that nanosynthesis, magnetics and biomedical materials are the initial thrusts of the CMI. The physical focus of the center is a group of central facilities being established in the Crow Hall basement, a major part of which is undergoing a complete renovation. This central facility will feature a state-of-the-art nanofabrication lab.

Satellite facilities at other locations at the University, such as one already in place in Biswas’ Environmental Engineering Science Program, also will be part of, and play a major role in, the center.

“I sense that all of the Washington University faculty who are interested in modern materials research are extremely pleased that the administration has created this new center,” Solin said. “We are building on a strong foundation of materials research at Washington University to get going. We anticipate adding eight to 10 additional members to join the center very soon, with a total first-year membership of 15 to 17.”

Solin said the center is formulated initially for Washington University members only and is funded for five years with University seed money.

He envisions the center emerging as a local and regional facility beginning in the second year, and he will actively cultivate industrial and academic affiliates/collaborators who can join the center and access the facilities for an annual membership or “pay-as-you-go” user fee.

Current University faculty and research staff will be encouraged to apply for membership by one of three methods:

(1) Individuals can propose to join one or more of the current thrust areas;

(2) Groups of three or more individuals can propose a new thrust area; or

(3) Individuals can propose a seed project that is considered a plausible first step in the evolution of a new thrust area.

“In a successful and vibrant center, thrust areas will mature over time and new ones will develop,” Solin said. “We want the center to be an intellectually dynamic place. We think the three thrusts we’re focusing on now are plenty, but we anticipate new thrusts evolving.

“New people will come in, and more long-term members will move on as they achieve their goals and as their scientific interests evolve. That’s the healthy situation we want and anticipate.”

Synergy is at the heart of the center’s philosophy and goals, Solin said.

“We want the center to be a place where individual talents are brought together to interact and produce results that could not have happened if those individuals operated in isolation,” he said.

One of Solin’s research thrusts is the properties of small systems. Materials physics has reached the mesoscopic regime — where natural processes are being studied and particles and materials being synthesized at characteristic dimensions of 50 nanometers or less — and this size scale is destined to get even smaller.

Consider that one nanometer is one one-thousandth of a micrometer; in comparison, a strand of human hair is typically 50-100 micrometers thick.

“To get to the next level, we have to understand the way physical systems work on a very small scale,” Solin said.

As an example of the kind of synergy the center will foster, Solin cited Buhro’s work with nanowires that might ultimately be incorporated into nanoelectronic devices. Nanowires are receiving much attention as potential transistors, wires and switches for ultra-small circuits and devices to be built from them on almost a molecular scale.

“Bill makes these marvelous nanostructures onto which I can put contact wires using the new CMI nanofabrication lab,” he said. “Then we can learn about the electrical conductivity, the magneto conductivity and measure other parameters to probe the fundamental physics of these nanomaterials.

“Now, I could never make these materials, but he would not have the special equipment I have to put the contacts on such very small objects. Together, our hope is to come up with results that we couldn’t get working separately from one another.”

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