MRSEC researchers taking big steps to advance nanomaterials

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Rehder viewing microscope.

Graduate student Eric Rehder viewing a scanning tunneling microscope capable of distinguishing silicon and germanium atoms on the surface of thin films.

Through a host of interdisciplinary collaborations, the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) on nanostructured materials and interfaces contributes to the world of tiny materials in a big way. Using novel instrumentation and analytical methods, researchers can approach near-atomic-scale control over polymeric and inorganic materials. “Materials science has pushed the limits of our ability to manipulate, characterize and exploit matter at the atomic level,” says Chemical Engineering Professor Thomas F. Kuech, the center’s director. “This level of control over materials is at the frontier of our knowledge, and lies at the borders of traditional science and engineering disciplines.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) established MRSEC in 1996 with a five-year, $10.6 million grant. Its research involves more than 30 faculty and staff from six departments, the School of Veterinary Medicine, other universities and industry. Its structure enables the center to focus a range of expertise on each research problem, and share equipment and expertise among research groups. Because MRSEC establishes its own research priorities, it can respond quickly when promising new research problems arise.

Both of MRSEC’s largest research groups focus on areas that, despite their technological significance, have not been studied comprehensively and fundamentally outside UW-Madison. One group investigates controlled thin-film growth to produce semiconductors by chemical vapor deposition (CVD). Among its breakthroughs, the group has developed a theoretical understanding of many fundamental mechanisms involved in CVD growth and growth of quantum-dot structures, and developed novel instrumentation and analytical methods for both atomic-level characterization and direct growth-front monitoring.

Another group couples experimental studies of grain boundary properties with electronic studies and theoretical modeling to address supercurrent transport across grain boundaries in polycrystalline superconductor materials. Grain boundaries are the primary obstacle to the flow of superconducting current in these materials, and these studies are paving the way to practical high-temperature superconductors.

An emerging research area within MRSEC focuses on integrating nanostructured surfaces into biological systems. A team of researchers is studying how textured substrates with controlled topography on the 1-100 nm scale interact with similarly-sized protein assemblies, extracellular matrices, microtubules, viruses and other biological entities that direct cell behavior. Potential applications of this work include improved cell culture systems, tissues for artificial organs, and new biological sensors.

MRSEC’s smaller exploratory research programs include:

  • Demonstrating the self-assembly of nanostructures with linear order at stepped surfaces.
  • Studying the precursor chemistry involved in the molecular electrospray deposition of ferroelectrics. A viable thin-film methodology for ferroelectrics production would permit the design and production of new devices with unique capabilities.