Herman Leads Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC)

Columbia Awarded $10 Million in NSF Funding: Centers in Materials Science, Environmental Chemistry To Investigate Thin Films, Transport of Pollutants

The National Science Foundation announced Wednesday (Oct. 7) that it has awarded Columbia University nearly $10 million over five years to open two new interdisciplinary centers, one in materials science and one in environmental chemistry, devoted to basic research.

The materials science work is expected to contribute to technologies that may be the basis of the next revolution in computing and communications. The environmental chemistry institute will help chemical, automotive and electronics firms around the world cope with problems of industrial waste disposal.

Both centers will open vital new fields of research to Columbia scientists and engineers. Materials scientists will look at thin films containing tiny particles of semiconductors and metals bound by organic molecules and polymers as components of a new generation of high-density magnetic storage and optical communications devices. Environmental researchers will examine how chemical pollutants and heavy metals move through soils and waters and will develop new tools to predict and repair contamination. They will propose strategies to improve the operation of such local sites as the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island and the North River Sewage Treatment Plant on the Hudson River.

Officials in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Barnard College and the Columbia Earth Institute learned in August that the NSF had approved the two centers. Columbia's proposals were among the dozen selected as materials centers and among the three selected for environmental chemistry centers in the highly contested competitions. "This success demonstrates the great potential Columbia has in materials science and in environmental research, especially when investigators from many disciplines are brought together," said Peter Eisenberger, Vice Provost for the Columbia Earth Institute.

The NSF will contribute $4.3 million over four years to the materials science center and, in a joint program with the federal Department of Energy, $4.98 million over five years to the environmental center. The federal agency will consider another round of funding in materials science after four years, but the environmental program is non-renewable.

Researchers at both centers expect to use this support to attract funding from foundations and corporations, and already have industrial partners who will contribute funding and expertise. University matching funds will be made available, from the Vice Provost's Strategic Research Initiative, the Columbia Earth Institute and from the engineering and arts and sciences schools, totaling $637,000 for the materials program and $600,000 for environmental chemistry. In addition, the University will support several graduate students and minority undergraduate summer interns in each program.

The materials science center, to be called the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) after the NSF's name for its funding program, will be headed by Irving Herman, professor of applied physics. Louis Brus, professor of chemistry, who pioneered the field of semiconductor nanoparticles at Bell Laboratories, will direct the center's interdisciplinary research group. NSF named eleven other universities to house materials science centers: University of Alabama; University of Chicago; University of Colorado, Boulder; Harvard; University of Kentucky; University of Massachusetts, Amherst; MIT; Michigan State; University of Minnesota; Princeton and a consortium of Stanford, University of California, Davis and IBM Almaden.

The Columbia materials center will be coupled to research programs with complementary strengths at other New York area institutions, including City College of New York, Allied Signal Corp., IBM Corp. and the Bell Laboratories unit of Lucent Technologies, Inc.

Columbia has strengths especially well suited to the work, in the study of materials chemistry at the atomic scale and in creating interdisciplinary research teams to investigate basic science that overlaps several disciplines, Prof. Herman said. Departments involved in the center will include chemistry, physics and materials science. "It's essential that researchers have the opportunity to explore how these systems work before embarking on designing devices," he said. "No far-reaching technological change ever has been accomplished without this basic understanding."

The environmental center, to be called the Environmental Molecular Science Institute (EMSI), also named after its funding program, will be headed by George Flynn, Higgins Professor of Chemistry, and will be administered as part of the Columbia Earth Institute. Columbia's research station at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Ariz., also will participate, possibly offering courses related to the environmental research. Research will be conducted in the departments of chemistry, physics, applied physics, electrical engineering and earth and environmental science at Columbia, and the environmental science department at Barnard. The joint NSF and DOE program also made similar awards to Northwestern and Princeton universities.

The environmental center will unite Columbia's traditional strengths in chemistry, geological sciences, physics, applied physics and electrical engineering, and will bring together researchers from academic departments at Columbia and Barnard as well as Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia's earth sciences campus in Palisades, N.Y. Scientists will collaborate with three research groups at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, part of DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.

Columbia expects to use the environmental chemistry institute as a seed for future efforts, to be coordinated by the Columbia Earth Institute, to develop a university-wide base for fundamental research in environmental science. The institute's industrial partners include DuPont de Nemours & Company, IBM Corp., GE Corporate Research and Development, and INRAD, a manufacturer of scientific instruments in Northvale, N.J.

"Columbia's commitment to global ecological problems through the Columbia Earth Institute places the new Environmental Molecular Science Institute in an enviable position to attack the premier scientific and technological issue of the 21st century: understanding the environment!" Prof. Flynn said.

Both centers will develop outreach programs to involve women and minority students at the graduate and undergraduate levels. The environmental center will develop new graduate and undergraduate courses, such as environmental chemistry, to be team taught by participating faculty, and will develop case studies and laboratory materials to be used in existing courses. Both the Fresh Kills landfill and the North River plant will serve as convenient sites for undergraduate and graduate field trips, providing nearly unlimited access to real-world soil and water samples.

The materials center is to create an undergraduate course for liberal arts majors at Columbia and conduct outreach to elementary and high schools. Both centers also will take advantage of existing research fellowships and summer study programs to attract interested students.

"We want to get people excited about materials," Prof. Herman said. "They are important in so many different areas. If we can affect just some of the kids in New York City schools, we will have justified the program."

The materials science center will build on advances in the production of thin films of semiconductors, metals and polymers. Organic and inorganic materials already have been combined in certain limited applications - the field is known as "heterogeneous thin films" - but recent research indicates the potential for many new device concepts in which organic and inorganic materials play a much greater functional role.

Researchers affiliated with the materials center, to be housed in part in the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research, will investigate new types of integrated chemical films that include tiny particles of inorganic materials - either metals, magnetic solids or semiconductors - embedded in an organic polymer. Such tiny particles, called nanoparticles, are about 50 angstroms - a few molecules - in diameter, and can have dramatically different properties than larger chunks of the same material. It may even be possible to "tune" such organic and inorganic combinations, to change the properties of the material - such as its light-emitting properties, conductivity or magnetism - by changing the organic polymer or other features.

For example, the wavelength of light emitted by nanoparticles can be adjusted by changing the size of the nanoparticles, creating pulses of light in whatever wavelength is desired. Such a technology could be invaluable in fiber optic communications, or in an eventual light-based computer. Particles also could be ordered in clever arrays, such as carefully-designed three-dimensional systems, that could have special light-emitting or magnetic properties.

While most scientific discussions of environmental pollutants have taken place at the macroscopic scale, involving factors such as soil permeability, scientists now have the capability to examine transport, reactivity and decay of pollutants at the molecular level. Part of the new institute's challenge will be to take molecular-level information and make it useful at real-world scales.

The key problem shared by landfills, waste treatment plants and industrial facilities is the chemical fate and transport properties of organic materials and heavy metals as they move through soils, and how water and biological catalysts affect them. For example, a major source of pollutants in the automobile industry is the foundry sand used for the metal casting of automotive parts. Organic materials and heavy metals eventually leach from the sands, which at 1.5 million tons account for the largest quantity of solid waste generated by the auto industry. Yet little is known about how or why the materials bind to sand or eventually unbind. Similar problems beset the Fresh Kills landfill and the DOE's nuclear waste disposal site at Hanford, Wash.

Originally published by Columbia Engineering News
Contact: Bob Nelson, (212) 854-6580, rjn2@columbia.edu


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