Federally-funded center to advance materials research

A new center at the University of Delaware will advance research to transform the way materials are made.

The UD Center for Hybrid, Active, and Responsive Materials (UD CHARM) will drive fundamental materials science research with the potential to enable critical innovations in biomedicine, security, sensing and more.

The effort will be led by UD’s Thomas H. Epps, III, the Thomas and Kipp Gutshall Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, with $18 million in funding from the National Science Foundation. Epps also holds a joint appointment in materials science and engineering. LaShanda Korley, Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, will co-direct and coordinate operational aspects of the center.

The center is part of a network of academic partners and national labs focusing on the development of new materials. Regional research partners in the UD-led center include the University of Pennsylvania and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). It is one of 11 Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs) across the country funded by the NSF in 2020.

MRSECs are an important part of the materials science enterprise in the United States with a focus on fundamental research. They serve as hubs for national and international collaboration in research and industry partnerships, and also are critical developers of educational and outreach content for the materials community.

“We congratulate Professors Thomas Epps and LaShanda Korley for leading this transformational effort,” said University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis. “The new Center for Hybrid, Active, and Responsive Materials at UD will expand the boundaries of science and engineering and spearhead the materials revolution that will help create the future economy. The center will bolster our research and academic partnerships with Delaware State University and with Claflin University to provide more educational opportunities to students from underrepresented groups. We look forward to the exciting developments ahead by this amazing team!”

A major educational and outreach thrust of UD CHARM will be to improve the diversity landscape at all levels of the academic and research enterprise. Key initiatives include providing exciting research and education opportunities in materials science for students from underrepresented groups, in partnership with Delaware State University in Dover, Delaware, and Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, two historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

“This award not only provides a home for new research in our region, but it will allow students access to funding and opportunities and make these regional partners an even more attractive destination for top scientists,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Coons from Delaware, who is a staunch supporter of science and a member of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee.

Enabling ultra-small building blocks

UD CHARM is advancing foundational understanding of new materials driven by theoretical and computational predictions paired with cutting-edge experiments. The collaborative effort involves interdisciplinary teams of UD faculty from chemical and biomolecular engineeringmaterials science and engineeringphysics and astronomy, and chemistry and biochemistry.

One project team, led by UD researchers Darrin Pochan and April Kloxin, will work to design synthetic and artificial versions of proteins that can act as molecular scaffolds and, ultimately, as ultra-small molecular robots and devices. The hope is to program these molecular machines to perform functions that are difficult to accomplish with human hands, such as locating and soldering a loose wire on a computer chip inside a device or moving cellular material from one location to another inside the body.

The center will leverage expertise in computational science with Jeff Saven at the University of Pennsylvania to streamline the experiments driving this work and invest in advanced materials characterization equipment to make these devices. The partnership with NIST, a national laboratory, affords researchers involved in this effort the ability to directly study these machines at work in the environment where they will be used, rather than in an artificial environment like a petri dish.

“As a member of the network of Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers, UD will serve as an international hub for collaboration in research and industry partnerships, as well as developers of educational materials for the materials community,” said Charles G. Riordan, UD’s vice president for research, scholarship and innovation. “These facilities and capabilities will benefit the University community, as well as local industry and regional academic partners.”

A second project team, headed by UD materials scientists Joshua Zide and Matthew Doty, will focus on designing next-generation quantum materials and devices that can improve our ability to sense everything from chemical weapons, such as anthrax, to viruses or changing oxygen levels in humans.

To do so will involve creating precise, high-quality and high-purity materials to develop and validate new theories in physics. In turn, these theories will enable faster, cheaper, more sensitive and more reliable sensors, energy conversion devices and computing approaches.

“These interdisciplinary efforts build upon UD’s core strengths in materials research and will drive new innovations that will have transformative impact in technology and education,” said Korley.

Improving diversity, climate and community

To help build a diverse and inclusive pipeline of future engineers and scientists, UD CHARM will support undergraduate pathways for Black and Latinx youth. This will include paid internships through TeenSHARP-DE, a college prep program, along with other mentoring initiatives to expose younger students in basic science and engineering.

According to Epps, one particularly exciting component of the partnership with DSU and Claflin University is the MRSEC fellows program, which will create a pathway to graduate school for undergraduate students by exposing them to materials science early on in their college careers. DSU, for example, does not offer a materials science degree program. Through the MRSEC fellows program, DSU and Claflin students will have the opportunity to participate in UD undergraduate research opportunities and materials science courses at no cost to them, with the goal of furthering their educational objectives and curiosity.

Annually, the center will support approximately 40 undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, along with five high school students over the six-year grant.

“Coupled with networking and mentoring opportunities, students will be able to envision themselves in these spaces, and find trusted resources and role models for guidance,” said Epps.

Along with Epps and Korley, UD co-principal investigators and technical leads on the project include:

  • Matthew Doty, professor of materials science and engineering;
  • April Kloxin, Centennial Development Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, with a joint appointment in materials science and engineering;
  • Darrin Pochan, professor and chair of materials science and engineering; and
  • Joshua Zide, professor of materials science and engineering.

The UD CHARM team would like to offer special thanks to David Barczak, communications manager in the UD Research Office, and Joy Mintzer, senior sponsored program coordinator in the College of Engineering, for their proposal support.

 | Graphic illustrations by Don Shenkle