$15.6M Materials Research Center to revolutionize computer memory and wearable medical devices

Mike Koon for the College of Engineering

Innovative materials are the foundation of countless breakthrough technologies, and the Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center will develop them. The new center is supported by a six-year, $15.6 million award from the National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers program. It is led by U of I Professor of Physics Nadya Mason and will be situated in the Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory, part of the Department of Physics complex. 

The Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center will build highly interdisciplinary teams of researchers and students to study two types of materials. One research group will study new magnetic materials, where ultra-fast magnetic switching could form the basis of smaller, more robust magnetic memory storage. The second group will design materials that can withstand bending and crumpling that typically destroys the properties of those materials—and will even create materials where crumpling enhances performance. This would enable materials in better contact with our bodies, because our limbs, skin, and even cells bend and move dynamically at both the macro- and microscale. In this way, such materials can form the basis of wearable electronics or medical devices that interface with, conform to, and move with our bodies.

“This is very fundamental research, but it could have enormous long-term impact for a variety of industries and for society,” shares Mason. “If we can control the dynamics of these magnetic materials, we could revolutionize flash storage. And if we can make typically hard electronic materials ultra-flexible, we could create completely new wearable devices that could even interface with skin and cells. 

“But before we can create applications, we need to understand and control the fundamental materials properties that are limiting progress in these areas. And that is why we need this collaborative team, drawn from all different areas of science and engineering.”

The research activities of the Illinois Materials Research Center will be tightly integrated to educational and outreach activities. Advanced training for a diverse group of undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers in science communication and in creating high-impact partnerships will produce well-trained scientists who can push the boundaries of materials research in industry and academia and increase the pipeline for the future scientific workforce. The Center will also strengthen Illinois’ role as a regional and national hub for materials facilities and infrastructure. 

“Illinois routinely earns more National Science Foundation research funding than any other university, but our work cannot and absolutely does not stop there,” comments Andreas Cangellaris, dean of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering. “The team that Nadya has built and the vision that she has established embraces that whole-heartedly. The Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center is going to improve our world and our students’ educational experiences.”

The Departments of Materials Science and Engineering, Physics, Mechanical Science and Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Bioengineering, Chemistry, and Media Studies are collaborating on the center. Illinois’ I-STEM Educational Initiative and the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory are also partners. 

Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers support interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary materials research and education of the highest quality while addressing fundamental problems in science and engineering that are important to society. They require outstanding research quality, intellectual breadth, interdisciplinarity, flexibility in responding to new research opportunities, support for research infrastructure, and they foster the integration of research. There are about 20 Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers across the country.

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Associate Head for Graduate Programs and Professor S. Lance Cooper has been awarded the 2018 Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring Award of the Office of the Provost at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

One of the Campus Awards for Excellence in Instruction conferred annually at the campus’s Celebration of Teaching Excellence, this accolade recognizes sustained excellence in graduate student mentoring; innovative approaches to graduate advising; major impact on graduate student scholarship and professional development; and other contributions in the form of courses and curricula, workshops, or similar initiatives. Cooper was presented with the award on April 12, 2018.

The University of Illinois has received a three-year, $1 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to continue funding for the Sloan University Center of Exemplary Mentoring at Illinois. The program, started in 2015, supports underrepresented minority doctoral students in science, technology, engineering and math fields and is one of nine UCEMs throughout the country.

The UCEM emphasizes mentoring, professional development and social activities to build a community of scholars. The center hosts an extensive orientation program for new students, workshops and seminars in addition to financial support in the form of scholarships. The center also works with departments to set up a mentoring team for each scholar and monitors academic and research progress.

  • Events

Sir Anthony Leggett, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physics and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, turned 80 years old on March 26. To celebrate, the Department of Physics is hosting a physics symposium in his honor, with participants coming from around the world. The symposium, “AJL@80: Challenges in Quantum Foundations, Condensed Matter Physics and Beyond,” is targeted for physicists and requires pre-registeration. It begins tonight, Thursday evening, and will go through Saturday evening (March 29 – 31, 2018).

In conjunction with the symposium, two public presentations will be offered back-to-back on Friday, March 30, starting at 7:30 p.m., at the I Hotel and Conference Center’s Illini Ballroom. (1900 S. First St., Champaign). There is no admission fee and registration is not required—all are welcome.

  • In the Media
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In a paper in Nano Letters ("Optical Voltage Sensing Using DNA Origami"), a research team, led by Keyser, Philip Tinnefeld from the Institute of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at Technical University Braunschweig, and Aleksei Aksimentiev from the University of Illinois at urbana-Champaign, has now reported for the first time, that a voltage can be read out in a nanopore with a dedicated Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) sensor on a DNA origami.