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NSF Renews Materials Center Funding

Bill Steele, CORNELL CHRONICLE :: Sep 9, 2011
NSF Renews Materials Center Funding

ITHACA, NY (Bill Steele, CORNELL CHRONICLE ) -- Characters in science fiction often say things like “I don’t know what this is made of. It’s like nothing on Earth.” They could be talking about something created at the Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR), which assembles atoms in ways never seen in nature for applications ranging from computer memory to replacement body parts.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced renewed funding for CCMR, established in 1960 as the Cornell Materials Science Center and renamed a decade ago. It is one of a nationwide NSF network of Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers. NSF has granted $18.36 million for CCMR over the next six years.

“I am very proud of the proposal we developed and gratified that the reviewers strongly endorsed our vision for the future,” said CCMR director Melissa Hines.ccmr ”We solicited ideas from researchers across campus and asked peers around the globe to review and critique draft proposals.”

“We are delighted with the renewal of NSF funding as the result of what was a quite thorough and very arduous national re-competition process,” said Robert Buhrman, senior vice provost for research. “In addition to the cutting-edge research and interdisciplinary graduate training that it delivers, CCMR also fulfills an essential role in providing state-of-the-art materials characterization and analysis facilities to our researchers, as well as to many from outside Cornell.”

CCMR Shared Facilities are a regional and national resource, attracting more than 700 users per year to use facilities that include world-leading electron microscopy and spectroscopic analysis of single-atom-thick samples. About 20 percent of the usage is from outside Cornell, including many industrial researchers. “One of the goals of the program under which we are funded is to strengthen the nation’s research infrastructure, so external users are part of our mission,” Hines said. “They also help us support many of our world-leading instruments, which are typically not inexpensive to operate.”

The NSF grant supports three interdisciplinary research groups within CCMR:

• The Complex Electronic Materials group works with materials that already have exotic properties, trying to understand how they work and make them work better. These include materials that allow electrical control of magnetism, with applications in computer memory, materials that convert heat directly to electricity that could harvest waste heat from industrial processes, and high-temperature superconductors that could revolutionize power generation and transport.

• The Spin Manipulation group develops new materials and new techniques to exploit the spin of electrons — a quantum-mechanical property usually labeled “up” or “down.” Electric currents made up of electrons with more up or down spin can be used to switch the orientation of tiny magnets in computer memory, making it possible to store vast amounts of data in a small space.

• The Atomic Membranes group creates sheets of material only one atom thick, yet impermeable even to helium atoms and strong enough to resist pressure up to one atmosphere, for use in highly sensitive nanoelectromechanical (NEMS) devices and to enable new types of X-ray and electron microscope imaging.

The funding also will support “seed programs” to try out innovative ideas on a small scale – 75 percent of these have gone on to become independent, separately funded programs.

Also supported are industrial outreach programs that help New York state companies improve their products, and CCMR’s outreach programs to improve K-12 science education and encourage more students to consider careers in the much-needed STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

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