UMass Amherst Materials Science Center Receives $13.3 Million Federal Grant for Basic Polymer Studies

AMHERST, Mass. – The Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) on polymers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has received a six-year, $13.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study nanoscale polymer assemblies, polymers in highly charged solvents for potential use for drug delivery and harnessing thin-film instabilities for specialized sensors.

Thomas Russell, the Silvio O. Conte Distinguished Professor of Polymer Science at the university, says the grant will support 27 faculty members and 26 graduate students in five departments at UMass Amherst, plus undergraduate programs at Mt. Holyoke College, Smith College, the University of Vermont, the University of California-Riverside and Howard University.

“This represents continued support of excellence in polymer research for more than 30 years,” Russell says. “Yet we didn’t win support to do more of the same. We identified new challenges and emerging research areas to enable breakthrough science and technology.”

He says the NSF grant also recognizes UMass Amherst’s MRSEC as one of the world’s leading materials and polymer science research institutions, successfully fostering collaboration among chemists, physicists, biologists, polymer scientists and chemical engineers. Three major areas to be addressed are:

• Self-assembly of nanoscale objects “like pickup sticks,” Russell says, which are about 100,000 times thinner than a human hair. Applications of this basic research aren’t yet known, but it may be useful someday to be able to manipulate some of the bundled fiber types found throughout the human body, or to make and deploy synthetic ones.

• Behavior of thin-film instabilities, “like the wrinkles on a raisin or the crumpled fender of your car after an accident.” The snap of a Venus Flytrap is an example of thin-film instability. Learning how to mimic and control such a trigger might lead to new types of fast switches that flip only for a very specific task.

• Behavior of ionic liquids, “like drops of water when they hit a very dusty environment” creating liquid marbles. These balls of ionic salts have special properties at certain temperatures including lack of vapor pressure (they don’t evaporate). Russell says liquid salts should allow unique insight into charged polymers (polyelectrolytes) that are key to the function of the human body.

Two smaller projects supported by the new grant will explore anti-microbial surfaces that might lead to a material for making antibiotic operating tables, for example, and the electro-optical character of polymers. Shining a light on some polymers can generate an electrical charge, which might then be used to store data in new ways.

In awarding the funding to MRSEC, the NSF also calls on UMass Amherst to provide open access for researchers at isolated institutions to top-notch facilities, at the same time enhancing opportunities in science for women and minorities. Both are a “very important function of the grant,” Russell says.

MRSEC maintains 12 Shared Experimental Facilities at the five institutions, making expensive, state-of-the-art instruments that are also maintenance-intensive, available to researchers at Smith and Mt. Holyoke colleges, the University of Vermont and Howard University who otherwise would not be able to use such equipment. “The number of women and minorities in materials science is abysmally small,” notes Russell. “Our links to these institutions for this grant aims to improve that situation.”

Further, the grant recognizes MRSEC’s record of outreach to K-12 teachers and the public in the region. Summer institutes “excite teachers about the science and help them develop science curricula,” Russell explains. The center also sends graduate students to speak to high school classes and offers its traveling exhibit of stunning photographs, Ventures in Science Using Art Laboratory (VISUAL), to public places throughout the region.

Winning this grant reflects very highly on UMass Amherst for cooperation, commitment and excellence at all levels, Russell says. “It’s the whole package that we offer – a unified effort of the faculty, concerted effort of administration, all the creative young researchers we’ve attracted in every department from all over campus, and engaged students. Without these, it wouldn’t go.”

He adds, “Integrating many areas of science is absolutely essential. These centers were founded to support cross-disciplinary research to solve complex problems in a collaborative way, which a single researcher could never do.”