Penn’s Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter Awarded $21.7 Million NSF Grant

PHILADELPHIA — The University of Pennsylvania’s Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter has been awarded a six-year, $21.7 million center grant from the National Science Foundation to support LRSM’s work in cutting-edge materials.

The LRSM has been a center for interdisciplinary materials research since it was founded in 1961, and it has hosted an NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Center since 1996. The new MRSEC grant will continue support for education and experimental facilities, as well as the lab’s lofty research aims in four new areas.   

“All of our projects identify and attack big, new problems in materials science,” said Arjun Yodh of the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, director of LRSM. “These problems are generally multi-faceted and are too difficult for individuals or small teams to solve; they require collaborations between chemists, physicists, chemical, electrical and mechanical engineers, materials scientists, bioengineers, biologists and even medical researchers,”

To tackle such complex problems, MRSEC members are organized into Interdisciplinary Research Groups. The newly awarded Penn MRSEC has four such groups, the most of any MRSEC nationwide, which draw faculty from multiple departments in the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.     

The first group is lead by Randall Kamien of the SAS Department of Physics and Astronomy and Kathleen Stebe, chair of the SEAS Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. They will harness the effects of curvature and elasticity in soft materials, and their interfaces to create novel responsive materials and structures. 

The second group, led by Daniel Hammer of the SEAS departments of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Virgil Percec of the SAS Department of Chemistry, will study, synthesize and develop applications for molecules known as Janus-dendrimers and designer proteins. The resulting smart nano-materials, with virus-like structures and functions, have potential uses as environmental sensors and actuators. 

The third group, led by Rob Carpick of the SEAS Department of Mechanical and Applied Mechanics and Andrea Liu of the SAS Department of Physics and Astronomy, will study disordered materials, ranging from metallic glasses to granular media, such as sand. Their work will develop new understanding about how such disordered solids fail under stress, relevant for building tougher materials.

The fourth group is led by Cherie Kagan of the SEAS departments of Electrical and Systems Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering and Jay Kikkawa of the SAS Department of Physics and Astronomy. They will build “inter-dimensional” materials from nanocrystalline particles, assemblies that have novel electronic, optical, acoustic and magnetic properties.

The award coincides with the 50th anniversary of the LRSM, which has long played a vital role at Penn and in the greater Philadelphia region. By creating and sustaining a versatile suite of state-of-the-art experimental user facilities, the LRSM has partnered with local scientists from industry, government, and academe, as well as with technical institutes around the world.

“A crucial feature of our center is a very innovative and successful educational outreach program,: Yodh said. “Besides the obvious interactions with graduate students and post-docs, through research we are able to connect with area K-12 students and their teachers, undergraduates, local colleges, the general public and even universities far from Penn, as we do through 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.”