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Engineering wins NSF grant for nanoscale materials research

By Charlotte Crystal

Derren Dunn
Jeannie V. Reese
Senior scientist Derren Dunn, left, and research associate Tomas Chraska, both post-doctoral fellows, examine some of their work, conducted in the Engineering Schoolıs Focused Ion Beam Microscope Lab. The two work with professor Robert Hull, who heads this facility.

The U.Va. Engineering School has won a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a new Center for Nanoscopic Design. It is one of four new NSF-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering centers nationwide that will explore innovative materials and further the integration of research and education in the field of materials science.

"We're pleased and gratified at this vote of confidence by the NSF," said Richard W. Miksad, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. "Only 20 or so of these grants are in effect at any given time, and we were selected to receive one in vigorous competition with the nation's top research universities." 

The grant will strengthen U.Va.'s position at the forefront of materials research in areas ranging from novel electronic devices to fabrication of materials at the atomic level. It also will serve as an educational resource for both high school and university students, said Robert Hull, principal investigator and professor of materials science and engineering.

"The products of modern materials research impact our economy and our everyday lives. The centers address fundamental science and engineering problems in the creation of new materials. They also provide students a highly interdisciplinary education that is prized by potential employers in industry, academia and government."

Thomas Weber
Director of NSF's Division of Materials Research

"The center will allow us to recruit two new outstanding young faculty members and bring together about 10 current faculty members from several departments," Hull said. "The funds also will allow a dozen top graduate students to work in the center, as well as providing research experience for several dozen undergraduates."

Each award is granted initially for five years with continued NSF support possible after a competitive review. The new centers also will seek support from state government and private industry.

The NSF award to U.Va.'s Materials Science Department, which is ranked 21st in the country in the most recent U.S. News & World Report study, provides a firm foundation on which the Engineering School plans to build. The school is planning to raise $14 million in new funding to construct a building to house the new center, according to Miksad. As currently envisioned, the new structure will rise three stories high and cover 40,000 square feet, linking two existing buildings, materials science and engineering, and the other for chemical engineering.

Hull attributed U.Va.'s success in winning the materials research grant to an interdisciplinary team effort, with important contributions from John Bean, professor of electrical engineering; James Groves, Robert A. Johnson, Gary Shiflet and Haydn Wadley, professors of materials science and engineering; Joe Poon, professor of physics; and Carolyn Vallas, director of the Engineering School's Office of Minority Programs.

Collaborators from IBM Research also played a central role in securing the grant, Hull said.

According to the NSF, the new centers' mission is to work closely with industry to identify and address key obstacles to future materials development. Much of the work takes place at the nanoscale level -- about 1,000th the width of a human hair -- which requires specialized equipment and expertise to create new properties with the potential to revolutionize consumer and industrial products.

The new grant will support investigations into guided growth processes of semiconductor surfaces. Through the Center for Nanoscopic Design, researchers will explore the assembly of highly perfected nanoscale structures. Applications include quantum dot electronics, biological templating and nanoscale control of electrochemical reactions.

Industrial and academic partners are closely integrated into the research plan. The educational outreach program emphasizes students at smaller universities and community colleges in the Commonwealth. "The products of modern materials research impact our economy and our everyday lives," said Thomas Weber, director of NSF's Division of Materials Research. "The centers address fundamental science and engineering problems in the creation of new materials. They also provide students a highly interdisciplinary education that is prized by potential employers in industry, academia and government."

In addition to the center at U.Va., the three other new centers will be located at the California Institute of Technology, the University of Oklahoma/University of Arkansas and Pennsylvania State University. The NSF will invest $24 million in the centers over five years.

NSF currently supports 29 materials research centers with a total annual investment of $52.5 million.

 


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