Center at the cutting-edge of materials science wins $22.6 million grant

Penn’s Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter (LRSM) has been awarded a six-year, $22.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support the center’s work in cutting-edge materials science.

The LRSM has been an academic center for interdisciplinary materials research since it was founded in 1961, and it has hosted an NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) since 1996. The new MRSEC, one of eight selected nationwide, provides crucial support for the LRSM’s education and outreach missions, its shared experimental facilities, as well as its research aims in three new areas.   

“Our research projects identify and tackle big problems at the frontier of materials science,” says Arjun Yodh, director of the LRSM. “These problems are multi-faceted and are too difficult for individuals or small teams to solve. Our new activities engage 35 faculty and literally involve collaborations between chemists; physicists; chemical, electrical and mechanical engineers; materials scientists; bioengineers; biologists; and medical researchers.”

To tackle these complex problems, MRSEC members are organized into interdisciplinary research groups. The newly awarded Penn MRSEC has three such groups, the maximum permitted by NSF, which draw faculty from nine departments in the School of Arts & Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Perelman School of Medicine.

The first group, Rearrangements & Softness in Disordered Solids, is led by Douglas Durian of the Department of Physics & Astronomy and Paulo Arratia of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. Its members will develop strategies to enhance toughness in disordered solids like glass. Dropping a smart phone, for example, may dent the metal case but shatter the glass screen. The team aims to generate a fundamental understanding of how the internal rearrangements of constituents evolve when the solid is deformed. The systems to be studied span from glasses made from atoms to solids made from grains. They expertly combine experiment, theory, and simulation.

The second group, Structural Chemo-Mechanics of Fibrous Materials, led by Paul Janmey of the Department of Physiology and Vivek Shenoy of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, aims to understand and harness the structural, chemical, and mechanical complexity inherent in fibrous networks. Fibrous networks are ubiquitous in biology but underexplored in materials science. The team will draw on faculty expertise in network design, protein chemistry, rheology, theory, simulation, and imaging to synthesize materials that activate chemical reactions via local strain and self-reinforce before breaking.

The third group, Pluperfect Nanocrystal Architectures, led by Cherie Kagan of the Department of Electrical Systems Engineering and Randall Kamien of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, arose organically from highly successful nanocrystal and liquid crystal LRSM communities. The team will make assemblies of nanocrystals on hard templates and within soft materials that hold promise for applications in sensing, energy conversion, and optical signal processing.

In addition to research excellence, the LRSM was also awarded the MRSEC because of its innovative education and outreach activity.

“A crucial feature of our center is its remarkable education and outreach program,” Yodh says. “Besides the work with graduate students and post-docs through research, we connect with area K-12 students and their teachers, undergraduates, faculty at local colleges, the general public, and even universities far from Penn such as in our partnership with the University of Puerto Rico. MRSEC support is vital for generating student interest, for taking them to the next level, and for promoting diversity in science and technology at all levels.”

Arjun Yodh is the James M. Skinner Professor of Science​​​​​​​ in the Department of Physics & Astronomy in the School of Arts & Sciences.