Illinois MRSEC renewed for six years, continuing vibrant materials research community


Michael O'Boyle, The Grainger College of Engineering

The Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, or MRSEC, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has been funded for an additional six years. The center’s interdisciplinary research will continue with two new focuses at the cutting edge of materials science, and outreach and education activities will continue work to develop a STEM pipeline and foster community among researchers, students and the public.

“In the years since the center was formed in 2017, we built programs from the ground up, established a community, and figured out the best ways to undertake research and education. Now we have the chance to keep our momentum going and really increase our impact,” said Nadya Mason, the Rosalyn Sussman Yalow Professor in Physics at the U. of I. and the center director.

Arend van der Zande
MechSE Professor Arend van der Zande

The Illinois MRSEC is one of 22 across the United States created by the National Science Foundation. Each center brings researchers from one institution together to address a handful of fundamental questions in materials science and engineering in depth for six years. The problems addressed are complex enough to be inherently interdisciplinary, so the researchers are selected from different backgrounds. By forming multidisciplinary cohorts in a single institution, MRSECs create a basis for midscale, regional infrastructures in materials science.

“But they’re special because they’re not just about research,” said Mason, who is director of the Beckman Institute at UIUC. “They create ecosystems that integrate research, education and partnerships. A MRSEC allows us to form a thriving materials community where people set up their careers in a way that integrates the strongest research with a commitment to engagement, outreach, education and their community.”

The new funding will support two interdisciplinary research groups addressing fundamental problems with strong potential for technological application. The first, “Directing Energy and Information Using 2D Strain-Scapes,” will be co-led by professor of mechanical science and engineering Arend van der Zande and professor of materials science and engineering Pinshane Huang. This group will continue work started in the previous center on two-dimensional materials, which are only a few atoms thick. The work in the previous center studied how to make these materials significantly more deformable than normal materials and leveraged this deformability to make new kinds of wearable electronics and biosensors. Now the group will focus on how mechanical strain can be used to reconfigure the quantum properties of these materials.

“Strain is a powerful tool that allows us to fundamentally change how solids function,” van der Zande said. “Imagine taking a semiconductor and locally patterning regions to become magnetic or superconducting just by locally patterning mechanical strain. These materials will have applications in new computing paradigms and quantum technologies like next generation semiconductors, spintronics and quantum emitters.”

Elif Ertekin
MechSE Professor Elif Ertekin

The second interdisciplinary research group, “Photo-Ionics: Controlling Ion Transport and Defects with Light,” will be co-led by professor of materials science and engineering Nicola Perry and professor of mechanical science and engineering Elif Ertekin. The group will investigate a class of materials that host mobile ions, atoms with electrons removed or added leaving a net electric charge. Control of ion movement in such materials has led to many applications, such as battery and fuel cell technologies, but their capabilities may be further expanded if they were controlled with light rather than electricity, ambient gas or temperature.

“There is a long history of using light to direct electrons in matter, from optical communications to radiation detectors to solar power, and this focus on ions is the logical next step,” Perry said. “We’re going to fill in this knowledge gap about how light changes ion properties and movement, and the resulting guidelines to design responsive photo-ionic materials may lead to brand new technologies in energy storage, computing and manufacturing.”

In addition to research activities, the new MRSEC will continue its focus on education and outreach to both the wider research community and the public. While the focus of the last center was science communication, the new center will focus on mentorship in all its forms. Center outreach and education coordinator Pamela Pena Martin explained that mentorship is important at all career stages, whether student, postdoctoral researcher or even junior faculty, and that it is crucial to forming connections in a scientific community.

“Another thing we’re excited about is continuing our K-to-12 outreach efforts,” she added. “Students know what a material is, but materials science is often something they don’t know about, so helping people appreciate the relevance of studying materials is important for us. We especially want older students, middle to high school, to consider how studying materials can be a viable career path.”

Harley Johnson
MechSE Professor Harley Johnson

Harley Johnson, a Founder Professor in Mechanical Science and Engineering and the center’s associate director, said that the research activities, although on apparently unrelated topics, do invite synergy.

“They don’t sound alike, and they look at different things, but they share techniques—microscopy, simulation and data processing and analysis—and they’re both tied to material structures,” said Johnson, who is also Grainger Engineering's associate dean for research. “This encourages synergy by bringing perspectives from many academic departments together while working on similar problems. That’s the power of a center like this, and why we’re so fortunate to have the chance to continue the work we started.”

U. of I. professor of chemistry Joshua Vura-Weis; professor of electrical and computer engineering Shaloo Rakheja; Grainger Distinguished Chairs in Engineering and professors of materials science and engineering Paul Braun and David Cahill; Founder Professor in Materials Science and Engineering Axel Hoffman; professor of materials science and engineering André Schleife; and professor of physics Vidya Madhavan will serve as senior investigators. External experts Dillon Fong, a principal materials scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, and Renske van der Veen, a professor of chemistry at the Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin, will also participate.

Illinois MRSEC is housed in the Materials Research Laboratory at the U. of I. The NSF has awarded $18 million to be distributed over six years.