|Dr. Darlene Taylor, assistant professor of chemistry and principal investigator|
In recognition that some of the leading scientists and engineers involved in the field of soft-matter research are located in the Research Triangle, 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, N.C. State University, UNC–Chapel Hill 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 and nanoparticles — to form larger structures with novel properties. The researchers involved in this project will investigate not just how and why these particles assemble in certain ways, but also how this assembly can be manipulated to create 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 28 centers across the country, each of which has a specific focus on a cutting-edge area of materials science.
“We believe that the Triangle MRSEC will become an important national and international center for innovation in the field,” said principal investigator Gabriel López, engineering and materials science professor 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,” he said.
The Triangle MRSEC will follow two main research “thrusts,” and the researchers working on them will collaborate with scientists in Europe and Asia, and at other U.S. institutions.
One thrust, led by Orlin Velev, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at N.C. State, will explore how small particles known as colloids combine in liquid, and 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 Ashutosh Chilkoti, a professor of biomedical engineering at Duke, 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, comparable to sentences, can be built. Darlene Taylor, assistant professor of chemistry at NCCU, is among the scientists taking part in this project.
In addition, Taylor is the principal investigator of a separate “seed” project, one of two financed by the NSF grant. The seed projects are an integral part of the new MRSEC, intended to promote the development of young faculty members, who can apply for funding for their research ideas. In the project supervised by Taylor, NCCU faculty and students will develop ways of changing the structure and properties of polymers and gels using heat, electricity and mechanical force.
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.