Center for Materials Research’s NSF funding extended, increased

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Daryl Lovell

Megan Holtz, a doctoral student in applied and engineering physics, uses an electron microscope for research in the Cornell Center for Materials Research microscope lab, in the Physical Sciences Building.

The Cornell Center for Materials Research – which through research and education is enhancing national capabilities in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and materials research at all levels – has been has been granted $23.2 million for the next six years from the National Science Foundation.

The funding represents a 26 percent increase over the center’s 2011 award. The CCMR is one of 20 members of the Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSEC) program in the Division of Materials Research at the NSF.

Cornell’s MRSEC award approaches the maximum the NSF awards for the program. It is the result of a proposal submitted by the CCMR, which highlighted projects from three interdisciplinary research groups, or IRGs, in addition to the educational outreach and shared-facilities missions at the heart of CCMR.

“This funding is critically important, and we’re so grateful to the NSF that our proposal was accepted,” said Melissa Hines, director of the CCMR. “This funding supports a number of different things; a big chunk of it is research, but it also provides support for several other initiatives that are very important parts of what we do.”

“We are delighted with the funding renewal from the National Science Foundation,” said Emmanuel Giannelis, vice provost for research and vice president for technology transfer, intellectual property and research policy. “The award continues the collaborative research, education and outreach of the center that began more than 50 years ago. With state-of-the-art shared facilities and cutting-edge research, the CCMR’s success is a testament to our faculty in materials research.”

The IRG projects include:

Mechanisms, Materials and Devices for Spin Manipulation: The project, co-led by Dan Ralph and Katja Nowack of physics, seeks to discover, understand and apply new mechanisms for controlling spins in magnetic devices. This field is important both because it is an area of rapid progress in fundamental materials physics, and improved spin control can often be applied quickly in technology.

“One of the impacts this could have is on next-generation computer memory,” Hines said. “This team has had two really high-impact discoveries in the last six years, and we think they are the most important discoveries in the field of magnetism in the past decade. They’re very well-positioned to make further gains.”

Structured Materials for Strong Light-Matter Interactions: This project, co-led by Greg Fuchs and Gennady Shvets of applied physics, seeks to understand, create and harness exceptionally strong light-matter interactions for scientific discoveries and future photonic information-processing technologies. The aim is to leverage expertise in materials and photonics, and generate significant enhancements in light-matter interactions and, hence, light-light coupling mediated by these interactions.

“They’re trying to learn how to use light to do computing,” Hines said. “Instead of electrons, which we now use for computing in our laptops, if we could do everything with light, it would up speed up processing and also reduce the power requirement.”

2-D Atomic Membranes for 3-D Systems: The goal of this project, co-led by Paul McEuen in physics and David Muller in applied physics, is to create atomically thin 2-D “paper” materials that self-fold into highly responsive 3-D structures. Success will depend on devising new strategies for self-folding.

“They’re looking to create structures that could, for example, sense the environment and detect a pH change,” Hines said. “They’re imagining creating tiny little robots that would self-assemble. They’re really far from that right now … but they’re doing very cool things out of that very thin material.”

Through this research and similar projects, the CCMR is educating a diverse cadre of undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to become leaders in the field of materials research at industrial, academic and government organizations.

Three other complementary functions complete the CCMR’s mission: educational outreach to teachers and students, through development of pedagogical materials for K-12 classrooms and “outreach to our own students, to give them the skills they’ll need to be successful,” Hines said; industrial outreach and knowledge transfer; and the operation of shared facilities and instrumentation, in support of materials research on and off campus.

“Cornell has exquisite shared facilities that are really the envy of the nation,” Hines said. “And one of the reasons is that we have trained facility managers whose job it is to keep the facilities running, to train people how to use these instruments and to be a resource.”

The CCMR – established in 1960 as the Cornell Materials Science Center – attracts approximately 700 users each year to its facilities, which include electron microscopy and spectroscopic analysis of single-atom-thick samples. About 20 percent of the usage is from outside Cornell, including many industrial researchers.

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