van der Zande to lead team studying novel nanomaterials in new NSF center


Julia Stackler

Assistant Professor Arend van der Zande
Assistant Professor Arend van der Zande
The University of Illinois was recently awarded a Materials Research Science and Engineering Center by the National Science Foundation.

The NSF awards approximately eight to ten MRSECs at a time, many of them renewals. This marks the first time that Illinois has received such a center.

The new MRSEC center is supported by a six-year, $15.6M grant and will focus on two types of materials. One group will study new magnetic materials, where ultra-fast magnetic variations could form the basis of smaller, more robust magnetic memory storage. A second group, led by a team in MechSE, will design materials that can withstand large mechanical deformations, like bending and crumpling, that typically destroys the properties of those materials—and even create materials where the deformation enhances performance.

This interdisciplinary research group, “Active Interfaces and Highly Deformable Nano-Materials,” is co-led by MechSE Assistant Professor Arend van der Zande and Bioengineering Professor Rashid Bashir. MechSE professors Narayana Aluru, Elif Ertekin, and Sungwoo Nam, along with Pinshane Huang (Materials Science and Engineering), Nadya Mason (Physics), and Catherine Murphy (Chemistry) are also part of the group.

“We combine electronic nanomaterials like graphene with biomaterials like DNA and lipid bilayers. One of the things that makes all these materials special is when you squeeze them down to atomic scale dimensions, they are much more bendable and flexible—in the same way that a block of wood and a piece of paper are very different,” said van der Zande. “So we’ll be looking at what happens to the mechanical properties of materials at this atomic scale and how we can integrate different nanomaterials together. We are really interested in seeing what kinds of new devices we can make that take advantage of the bending and deforming characteristics that are not possible with normal, macroscale materials.”

van der Zande said the motivation of the team’s research is to bridge the electronic design capability of hard materials with the adaptive nature of biology—with the goal of engineering electronic devices capable of changing shape and deforming into three dimensional structures.

Scientists already create electronic materials to make millions of electronic and mechanical devices using nanofabrication techniques. But materials in the biological world have the ability to self-assemble, change shape, and even change how they respond to their environment. This led the group to focus on the deformability of nanomanufactured materials—taking advantage of the new properties of nanomaterials to create highly deformable structures that behave more like biological structures. 

This presents a challenge because biological materials, like cell walls, are very soft. In contrast, conventional electronic materials like silicon, and even newer materials like organic electronics thin films or nanowires are very stiff compared with biology. This trend changes at the level of single-layer materials like two-dimensional (2D) materials, which are now thin enough that they have levels of bending stiffness similar to biological structures.  

“We can now directly interface electronic and biological materials together. In this new regime, what kind of new, super-flexible, deformable devices can we create?” said van der Zande. “In order to solve this problem, we had to form an interdisciplinary team. We have specialists in materials growth, molecular chemistry and building nano-biointerfaces and device fabrication to create these structures. Then we have experts in nanocharacaterization, atomic scale imaging and computational experts to model the nanoscale processes.”

Several potential applications of this research could be in the improvement of flexible or wearable electronics or to make new biosensors that are so soft they can conform to and make contact with tissues or cells. The center will be housed in the Frederick Seitz Materials Research Lab.

The team will also lead new outreach efforts that focus on science communication workshops and online videos for faculty and graduate students, a new Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, and educational activities for K-12 students and the community.

NSF MRSECs support interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary materials research and education while addressing fundamental problems in science and engineering that are important to society. They require outstanding research quality, intellectual breadth, interdisciplinarity, flexibility in responding to new research opportunities, support for research infrastructure, and they foster the integration of research. There are about 20 of these centers across the country.