MADISON, Wisc., Oct. 3 -- The University of Wisconsin-Madison Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) was awarded nearly $14.8 million by the National Science Foundation to continue its research, for the next six years, on the interfaces of materials at the nanoscale. The work could have applications in electronics and biology, including the use of atomic-scale materials to direct the growth and differentiation of embryonic stem cells, the university said.
NSF-funded MRSECs are located at academic institutions throughout the US. UW Madison is one of 11 existing MRSECs to receive renewed support this year; a total of 29 centers are currently supported by the MRSEC program with annual NSF support of $52.5 million.
Juan de Pablo, a professor of chemical and biological engineering and the UW Madison center's director, said with the renewed funding will enable it to embark on several new areas of study. One interdisciplinary research group will design liquid-crystalline-based materials that could give scientists spatial and temporal control over the chemical functionality and physical properties of interfaces. "These materials, if successful, could be used to design new sensors for various classes of pathogens, viruses, proteins or toxic chemicals," de Pablo said, "and they could be used to influence or guide the growth and differentiation of cells, including human embryonic cells."
Researchers in the group will also design substrates, or surfaces, with a controlled chemistry and nanoscale topography. "They will use this ability, again, to control the growth and differentiation of stem cells -- something that nobody else has done and that is very unique to our group," he said.
Another research group will study the interfaces between inorganic materials, such as traditional gallium-nitride semiconductors, and organic molecular structures. The scientists' goal is to increase their understanding of those interfaces so that eventually, they can build "hybrid" organic-inorganic electronic devices with new and enhanced properties. The applications of such devices could range from more efficient lighting to chemical and biological sensing.
Drawing on expertise in integration of materials on silicon, the center will also research semiconductor nanomembranes, a new form of nanomaterial, and implementing them initially in silicon, the most widely used semiconductor. These membranes have unique electronic and mechanical properties. Combined with their extreme flexibility, structural perfection and transferability to many "host" materials, they offer the potential for advances in flexible electronics, quantum computation and in biological and environmental sensing.
A number of UW Madison spinoff companies have ties to the center, including nPoint, founded by Max Lagally, a UW Madison materials science and engineering professor; Platypus Technologies, co-founded by Nicholas Abbott, a chemical and biological engineering professor there; Imago, founded by former UW Madison materials science and engineering professor Tom Kelly; and Virent Energy Systems, co-founded by James Dumesic, a UW Madison chemical and biological engineering professor.
For more information, visit: www.wisc.edu