Institute at the cutting edge of materials research

November 17, 2009

University Park, Pa. — From ceramic materials for electronics to atomic-scale nanotechnology, physics and chemistry to electrical engineering, clean energy to biotechnology, Penn State's Materials Research Institute (MRI) is at the cutting edge of research and technology that is changing the way we live.

In 2011 MRI will join with the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences to move into the Millennium Science Complex, an impressive new 275,000 square-foot facility under construction on Pollock Road at the University Park campus. While the new building will be breathtaking in size and architecture, what goes on behind its walls will be even more impressive.

"Materials research is done by people in many different fields -- in every engineering-type department, chemistry, physics, medicine," said Carlo Pantano, MRI director since 1998 and distinguished professor of materials science and engineering. "It can touch just about any technology that exists. What the MRI is here to do is permit research that crosses those disciplinary boundaries."

Sometimes that involves physicists learning more about the properties of a newly synthesized material. Other times it can involve developing new materials or finding existing ones that can be used in a specific device.

"It's materials research that crosses into different disciplines, whether we're looking for more understanding or to meet the needs of a particular application," Pantano explained.

Penn State materials researchers excel in a number of different fields, many of which overlap. Chief among them is electronic materials devices and systems, in which, Pantano said, Penn State has a tremendous depth of understanding and activity.

"Electronic materials have changed all of our lives, starting with the transistor and going up to cell phones, the Internet and laptop computers," he said. "The materials that go into electronic devices cover everything from semiconductors to glass to ceramics to plastics. We do a lot of the work in concert with faculty in electrical engineering who take the materials and make devices out of them or build systems out of them."

Nanotechnology, meanwhile, is among the most important research fields today. Scientists research both nanoscience -- understanding why finely divided materials have unique properties -- and nanostructuring -- creating materials at the nanoscale.

"Nanotechnology is literally impacting everything," Pantano said.

It was Penn State's leading work with bulk ceramic materials for electronics that helped make MRI researchers early leaders in nanotechnology.

"I wish we could take credit for kicking that field off, but we were certainly one of the earliest working in that area," Pantano noted. "I think the fact that Penn State was well versed in ceramic materials allowed us to move into nanotechnology fairly quickly. We were quite comfortable working with certain classes of materials that people wanted to take to the nanoscale."

The University had clean rooms, necessary to isolate nanofabrication work from vibration and electromagnetism, going back more than a decade, as well as some of the earliest funding from the National Science Foundation for nanofabrication research. University scientists have been major contributors to nanowire research for almost a decade, and have become leaders in patterning surfaces of nanomaterials Since nanomaterials are built from atoms, the surface needs to be patterned in order to control the materials' geometry and architecture. Penn State is home to some of the world's leading researchers-- such as Paul Weiss, professor of chemistry, and David Allara, professor of chemistry and materials science -- in this field.

MRI is also seeing a growth in research of optical and photonic materials, which manipulate light and influence a wide range of technologies from photography and satellites to optical fibers and holograms. Penn State also does leading research with function polymers, plastics used in electronics.

"These are plastics that might give off light, have memory functions or conduct electricity," Pantano said. "They can also be organic or polymer materials that could survive in the body, so they have applications in health care and bioengineering."

One of the institute's key functions is the resources it provides to faculty and students. Its materials characterization facilities include a number of labs with specialized equipment and a full-time staff of 18 specialists who maintain equipment, make it available to faculty and students and train students how to use it.

"Students have a real benefit, not only because the facilities are here, but they are treated like a customer when they go to the facilities," Pantano added. "We have a permanent staff, which is unique and comes from Penn State's investment in MRI. Students go to facilities and don't have to beg to borrow a piece of equipment or for somebody's help. They have a staff there to train and help them, to listen to their needs and help interpret data."

Commercialization is another key function, and MRI works with the state's Department of Community and Economic Development, Ben Franklin Technology Partners and other agencies for opportunities to support the region and the state. And of course international companies are highly interested in the work being conducted at Penn State, with companies collaborating with the University in several research centers while sending scientists and students to Penn State to learn about the latest research and advancements.

"Penn State in general has a very strong reputation in working with industry," Pantano said. "Faculty working in materials have been working with industry for a very long time. The fact that we are connected so strongly with industry also gives industry an audience with students and vice versa. Students know that and many want to be affiliated with MRI projects because they know it's on the path to jobs."

The cross-disciplinary nature of MRI projects among the nearly 200 faculty members working in materials also is attractive to graduate students, Pantano said. Students can, and are encouraged to, explore the various research at the institute. The Millennium Science Complex will help to further break down walls by allowing students and researchers from different disciplines to share the same space.

"If you come to Penn State and start working in a particular area of materials and it turns out not to be the kind of work you want to do, you don't have to leave Penn State to find another materials project," Pantano said. "They can find someone here at Penn State that is an expert in virtually any area of materials science."

In the new facility, that integration will reach new heights. The complex will provide state-of-the-art resources, allowing researchers access to the latest technology that current spaces cannot accommodate. For example, no current space on campus provides enough isolation from vibration to house the latest electron microscopes. The new building is constructed with just such needs in mind. At the same time, the technology and space will not only bring together researchers with similar work, but will also provide the potential to integrate life sciences and materials sciences.

Microscopy, for example, is an area where researchers in physical sciences and engineering can combine expertise with life sciences researchers who use the same equipment for seeing cells and proteins. Neuroscience, meanwhile, is an important field for the future of life sciences, and much of the technology needed for it is built on nanotechnology and new materials.

"We can combine our expertise and discover new things we wouldn't discover on our own," Pantano said. "At the same time it makes for a leaner, more streamlined operation."

Already on the leading edge of research and with a new facility on the way, Penn State scientists are poised to lead the way in 21st-century scientific advances.

"We're really trying to change the way research is done because the needs of the world for research -- and the technology it leads to -- have changed," Pantano said. "Working in a fairly narrow area is just not as prevalent as it used to be. Today you have to be able to connect your work with an application, with a need, with education. Everything is integrated.

"My hope is that 10 or 15 years from now you don't see a dotted line between one side of the building and the other."

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Last Updated June 23, 2015