NSF grants $8.1 million for new materials research center

Tech recently received an $8.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC).

The funding will be used to continue research and development efforts into alternative semi-conductor materials for the next six years.

The MRSEC will have facilities in the new Marcus Nanotechnology Research Center Building (NRCB). It will also be located in research labs across campus run by the schools of Physics, Electrical and Computer Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“The focus in the MRSECs in general is they take different approaches and different directions as to what material types and what problems they are trying to address,” said Dennis Hess, director of Tech’s MRSEC.

Of the 31 MRSECs across the country, Tech is the latest to receive funding from the NSF to pursue research into alternative materials.

“The thing that we were interested in was electronic materials, because we are getting to the point where the silicon used in microelectronics is reaching its limit, in the next seven to 10 years,” Hess said.

In their approach to solve this problem, the MRSEC will focus on finding alternative materials that could serve as viable replacements for silicon, which is currently used in a wide range of microelectronic devices, from computers to cell phones.

The MRSEC serves as the umbrella organization for Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs), which focus on more specific research topics in materials science. To start out, Tech will have one IRG headed by Walt de Heer, regents’ professor in Physics.

Hess hopes to expand the number of IRGs on campus as the MRSEC continues to investigate properties of materials. Hess cited the existing emphasis on interdisciplinary research at Tech as one of the reasons why this group will be brought together so easily.

Hess hopes that in the future, the programs will include other sciences to appeal to a larger body of research.

In addition to research, the program will also place emphasis on educational outreach to the greater academic community. In fact, half of the funds from the grant will be dedicated to this purpose. The MRSEC is planning on working with the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL) to achieve this goal.

The program also emphasizes diversity among its participating members. The MRSEC aims to bring people of different backgrounds from all over the world to work together and solve the research problems confronting the field of alternative materials today.

The program hopes that by including a diverse body of researchers from diverse educational backgrounds, they will be able to approach the current research from new perspectives that can provide fresh insights into their work.

Research has been progressing in Tech’s IRG for quite some time. The group has been actively investigating a material called graphene, which could significantly improve the performance of microelectronic devices when compared with those made from silicon.

“In principle, we can gain a factor of a hundred or so in performance by simply making that substitution and making the right kind of devices out of graphene,” Hess said.

Hess made a point to highlight the pace at which research on the topic of graphene properties is occurring in laboratories around the world.

“If you compare this with the silicon semiconductor industry, it took tens of years to fabricate small transistors. Already we have seen researchers fabricate small transistors using graphene, so this [process of research and development] is moving very fast,” Hess said.

Work to study the properties of graphene and create more successful electronic devices with the material are currently moving forward.

In the future, graphene is expected to become an extremely important material with numerous uses, promising to open new frontiers in materials research and the microelectronics industry.

“This looks to me to be exactly analogous to the development of the silicon industry. The process began with the physicists and the electrical engineers developing the industry, who then brought together people from all other disciplines, which is exactly what is happening now,” Hess said.