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NSF awards Materials Research Science and Engineering Center $11.7 million

Rehder viewing microscope.
MRSEC offers both undergraduate and graduate students research opportunities. Here graduate student Eric Rehder views a scanning tunneling microscope capable of distinguishing silicon and germanium atoms on the surface of thin films. Larger Image

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently announced an award of $11.7 million to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC). The campuswide center, based in the College of Engineering, is one of 11 existing NSF materials centers nationwide that together will receive a total of $110 million over five years. Academic institutions, state governments and industry partners also will contribute substantial support.

"New materials designed at the atomic and molecular level provide the basis for rapid advances in such areas as computing, high-speed communications, information storage, cell biology, and polymer development and production," says College of Engineering Dean Paul Peercy. "This NSF award will enable UW-Madison researchers to understand and develop new materials along with the processes to fabricate these materials to advance such cutting-edge technologies."

MRSECs work closely with industry and other economic sectors to identify and address key obstacles to future materials development. Today, much of the work occurs at nanoscale dimensions, requiring specialized equipment and expertise to create materials with new properties that could continue to revolutionize consumer and industrial products.

MRSEC research group.
Some MRSEC researchers are building 1-to-100nm-scale silicon scaffolds on which to grow corneal epithelial cells.These three-dimensional scaffolds mimic the topography of natural basement membranes upon which these cells grow in the human body. The team's preliminary evidence indicates the scaffold's topography influences cells' direction and behavior. Larger Image

NSF established a MRSEC at UW-Madison in 1996 with a five-year, $10.6 million grant. Research in this MRSEC involves more than 30 faculty and staff members from six departments, the School of Veterinary Medicine, other universities and industry. The center's research focuses on the mechanisms associated with integrating materials onto silicon, the semiconductor industry's "workhorse material"; investigating grain boundaries in high-temperature superconductors, and the role of nanostructured textured surfaces on the growth and behavior of biological systems such as cells and viruses.

"Nanostructured materials are at the forefront of modern materials science, and the UW-Madison center is a leader in developing these materials," says Director Thomas Kuech, a professor of chemical engineering. "In addition, there are wonderful opportunities for both discovery and training students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Our center brings together researchers and students from a number of engineering and science disciplines to work in the team-based environment required to address important issues in this field."

The two largest research groups in the UW-Madison MRSEC focus on areas that, despite their technological significance, have not been studied comprehensively and fundamentally at other institutions. One group investigates heteroepitaxial growth and developing new processing techniques for integrating materials at the mesoscopic to nanoscale range. Through such studies, researchers hope to develop unique structures that will enable them to integrate whole systems on a chip.

The center also has been a leader in understanding how detailed microstructure affects modern superconductor properties. This second 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. In the future, researchers could use these improved superconducting materials in such applications as highly efficient power transmission.

An emerging research area within the UW-Madison MRSEC focuses on integrating nanostructured surfaces into biological systems. Applications of this work include improved cell culture systems, tissues for artificial organs, and new biological sensors. The center's smaller exploratory research programs include the development of new composite materials based on nanosized composites as well as new means to characterize the properties of nanoparticles.

NSF currently supports 29 MRSECs with annual investments of $52.5 million. The centers integrate their research and educational programs by involving students in research activities and contributing courses and materials to the academic institutions.

Advances that have come out of MRSECs include new types of magnetic devices for information storage, nanoparticle assemblies linked by DNA, a superelastic form of the widely used plastic polypropylene and the ability to induce chemical reactions on a chip.

"The products of modern materials research impact our economy and our everyday lives," says 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."