Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 3, 1997 Form

Center Takes
Giant Leap Into
Small World

Phil Sneiderman and
Emil Venere
News and Information
In a world in which bigger is often considered better, Hopkins scientists have received a $3.5 million federal grant to think small.

Researchers in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the Whiting School of Engineering will use the money to expand their studies of a microscopic world where structures are measured in nanometers. The dimensions of this world are staggeringly small: one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, about 5 to 10 atoms wide or about one-millionth the size of a typical grain of sand.

This cutting-edge research, called nanotechnology, will be conducted through the new Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, a multidisciplinary project that will link the university with private-industry scientists seeking practical applications for novel materials developed in campus labs.

At the same time, Hopkins will involve high school and middle school students in this work in an effort to stir interest in science and engineering careers. University undergraduates will also be participating in the research of nanostructured materials.

To obtain the funds for this program, Hopkins had to survive a rigorous competition that began with 139 proposals from universities throughout the nation. From this pool, the National Science Foundation last September selected Hopkins to be one of 13 new MRSECs. These new centers joined 11 other MRSECs chosen in 1994. The NSF grant will be allocated over five years. In four years, Hopkins can seek further funding.

Each competing institution could propose a specialty area, and Hopkins researchers chose nanostructured materials, a field in which several faculty members have already achieved breakthroughs. The Hopkins center, launched Jan. 1, will specialize in making and studying various forms of these new materials, fabricated in several different ways.

Technological advances over the past decade have allowed scientists to create these tiny materials, which do not naturally occur. Some of these structures possess ideal properties for use in fields ranging from fundamental physics to new electronic devices. In the near future, discoveries in nanotechnology may produce new recording heads for media that can store far more data than existing forms; ultrathin coatings that can add strength and corrosion protection; and highly sensitive new types of electronic sensors.

In establishing a Hopkins center for such research, the NSF provided funding that encourages engineers and physicists to work together on the same projects. "I think this is a great thing to have at Hopkins," said the center's director, Chia-Ling Chien, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. "It gives Hopkins national visibility in the field of materials research. It's very difficult to do work that cuts across different disciplines, but this center is strictly for that purpose. It's for work that involves more than one, very often several investigators, with very different backgrounds."

One of the challenges the researchers will face is getting a direct look at the tiny structures they create through various techniques. To do that, researchers need powerful microscopes. Kevin Hemker, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and David Veblen, a professor of earth and planetary sciences, recently obtained National Science Foundation and Keck Foundation grants that will allow Hopkins to purchase a $1.5 million high-resolution transmission electron microscope. "The microscope will allow us to do chemical analyses and observations down to the nanometer scale," Hemker said, "to see what we're making."

The MRSEC at Hopkins will allow Baltimore area students and teachers to get a front-row glimpse of this innovative research. The university has agreed to involve a number of pre-college students and teachers annually in internships in campus labs where the nanostructure research is being conducted. University undergraduates will also be participating in the research of nanostructured materials.

In addition to Chien and Hemker, the founding research group includes Robert Cammarata, associate professor of materials science and engineering; Joseph L. Katz, professor of chemical engineering; Andrew Millis, associate professor of physics and astronomy; Daniel Reich, associate professor of physics and astronomy; and Peter Searson, professor of materials science.

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