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Recognizing that some of the leading scientists and engineers involved in the field of soft matter research are located in the Research Triangle Park area, the National Science Foundation has provided a six-year, $13.6 million grant to establish a multi-university center to investigate aspects of this promising area of scientific endeavor.

Researchers from Duke University, North Carolina State University (NC State), University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) and North Carolina Central University (NCCU) will focus their collective expertise on facets of soft matter research, a branch of materials science with almost limitless practical applications, from organic solar cells to tissue implants to new classes of drugs.

In general terms, soft matter describes such states of matter as foams, gels, polymers or emulsions. They are typically created by combining smaller particles – such as DNA, proteins, nanoparticles – to form larger structures with novel properties. The researchers involved in this project will not only investigate how and why these particles assemble in certain ways, but also how this assembly can be manipulated to achieve soft matter with defined characteristics.

The new initiative will be known as the Triangle Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC). It joins a network of university centers across the country, each of which has a specific focus on a cutting edge area of materials science.

Gabriel Lopez “We believe that the Triangle MRSEC will become an important national and international center for innovation in the area of soft matter -- including the theoretical generation of new insights, creation of new functional materials, development of new applications, commercialization and education,” said principal investigator Gabriel López, Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Duke.

“The fundamental understanding, design and application of these new types of materials will have implications across diverse fields of science, technology and medicine,” López said. “We plan to turn these findings into practical realities through relationships with existing companies as well as start-up companies likely to arise from the research.”

NC State’s Carol Hall, Camille Dreyfus Distinguished University Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, serves as co-principal investigator.

“This center is the remarkable result of a convergence of ideas from some of the world’s leading soft matter experts at universities right here in the Triangle,” Hall said. “Working together, this diverse group will develop new materials that helps solve some of humanity’s most challenging problems while jump-starting the careers of the next generation of soft matter researchers and entrepreneurs.”

The Triangle MRSEC will follow two main research thrusts, each led by a senior faculty member at Duke and NC State. The Triangle researchers working on these thrusts will collaborate with scientists from Europe and Asia, as well as the National Institute of Standards and Technology and several other institutions across the country.

The first thrust, led by NC State’s Orlin Velev, INVISTA Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, will explore in detail how small particles – known as colloids – combine in liquid, and furthermore, what kinds of strategies can be employed to control how these assembling particles form new materials with unique properties and functions.

The second thrust, led by Duke’s Ashutosh Chilkoti, Theo Pilkington Professor of Biomedical Engineering, aims to create a “syntax” with building blocks made up of polymers, DNA and proteins that can assemble into nano-scale structures. Just as letters make up words, and words make up sentences, these scientists plan to create a library of useful building blocks – letters and words -- from which larger structures – sentences -- can be built. UNC’s Michael Rubinstein, John P. Barker Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, will be developing the theory of polymer self-assembly.

An integral part of the new MRSEC is the development of young faculty members, who can apply for “seed” funding for their research ideas. Two such projects have already been funded: one involving NCCU faculty and students developing ways of changing the structure and properties of polymers and gels using heat, electricity and mechanical force; and another involving faculty from Duke and NC State looking into the potential of novel soft materials as that can be used as electrically driven mechanical actuators.

In addition to the broad range of scientific pursuits, the Triangle MRSEC will provide educational opportunities for undergraduates, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows at each of the institutions to foster their interest in soft matter research. An outreach program is also planned to help interest pre-college age students in pursuing careers in the sciences.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) today announced awards for three Materials Interdisciplinary Research Teams (MIRT) and nine Centers of Excellence in Materials Research and Innovation, also known as Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSEC). The awards resulted from the 2011 Materials Research Centers and Teams competition (solicitation NSF 10-568).

The centers and teams support outstanding multi- and inter-disciplinary materials research and education addressing fundamental problems in science and engineering and foster active collaboration among universities, international collaborators, industry and national laboratories.

"In light of the strong interest on the part of the administration in materials research through the recently announced Materials Genome Initiative, these awards are timely in order to advance new discoveries, support a strong workforce and strengthen infrastructure" said Janice Hicks, deputy director for NSF's Division of Materials Research. "These multidisciplinary awards will especially promote areas such as next-generation electronics and photonics and bio- and soft-materials. The centers will provide leadership for the country pertaining to new materials and new materials phenomena that could ultimately address national needs including sustainability and innovation. We are especially excited about the collaborations internationally and with industry that will give the students and postdocs in the centers experiences valuable to their lives as scientists and engineers."

Three new MIRTs were created as a result of the competition:

The Columbia University MIRT, Building Functional Nanoarchitectures in van der Waals Materials examines the assembly and physical properties of new composite materials created by 'nano-laminating' atomic sheets of different van der Waals materials which have novel electronic properties and are expected to lead to new nanoelectronic devices. The team seeks to exploit a wide range of new material building blocks, including both inorganic and organic materials. The research will focus on understanding the physical principles governing assembly of such materials and examine their distinctive optical, thermal and mechanical properties.

The University of Texas at Austin MIRT, Exploring Unusual Properties of Transition Metal Oxides will synthesize new transition metal oxides and develop a fundamental understanding of correlated electron behavior in these materials, which produce such intriguing properties as high temperature superconductivity, Mott insulator transitions and the newly discovered topological insulator state of matter. The work is anticipated to impact new materials development for the next generation of electronic and electrochemical energy devices.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill MIRT, Stressed Polymers - Exploiting Tension in Soft Matter will develop new principles in soft materials design where mechanical stress in materials is generated, managed, and harvested by molecular engineering. The research may lead to novel multifunctional polymer particles and substrates that autonomously change their shape, surface structure, mechanical and optical properties. These novel materials have potential applications in, among other areas, cancer therapy, imaging and medical diagnosis.

Read the full text of this article on mrsec.org.

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