The Chicago Materials Research Center (MRSEC) has established a highly successful, multidisciplinary approach to issues of technological importance at the forefront of materials research. The overarching goal, common to all of our Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs), is to produce the design principles for the next generation of materials. Each of the three IRGs addresses a fundamental issue applicable to a broad class of materials. Our ambitious programs attack some of the deepest challenges of materials research. Common themes include investigating materials formed far from equilibrium, exploring new paradigms for materials fabrication and response, and exploiting feedback between structure and dynamics. These themes, reappearing in each IRG described below, deal with important basic problems exploring design principles that are far from conventional and whose prospects are far from certain. See highlights »

IRG1: Traininable Soft Materials

Can we train a material to exhibit desired properties, and then retrain it to exhibit different behavior? Materials design focuses on establishing specific structural configurations and interactions among the constituent components of a material, often at molecular scales. Once identified, the associated design parameters typically are intended to remain fixed, so as to maintain a material’s properties. Changing the targeted properties then requires careful parameter re-programming. IRG 1 will take a lesson from the biological rules of life to mimic the adaptation that occurs in biological systems in physical materials with a goal of creating novel functionality through the process of training. Since the adaptation during training is carried out by the material itself, it can be achieved without precise (re-)design of the local structure. We will also bring understanding of what features of the intricate dance between a biological structure and its environment are useful to the material world. In return, as we understand more about trainability of materials, it is expected that this can help materials biology and advance mastery of synthetic biological systems by identifying training mechanisms at play in the biological realm. Read more »

IRG2: Active Architechtured Materials

The vision for IRG2 is to design and build shape-morphing hybrid materials with transport properties that are programmable and spatiotemporally self-regulating.  Gaining the ability to create active materials with distributed microscopic elements that convert energy into local mechanical work would fundamentally alter existing approaches to materials design. Such materials are ubiquitous in biology, where they impart autonomy to living systems. Inspired by nature, we will design and build hybrid inorganic-biological materials that sense and interact with the enviroment to produce an “artificial” skin, or active ink-jet drops to enable reconfigurable printing. The platform on which such technologies will be developed will consist of “activated” materials. By this term we designate materials that operate inherently out of equilibrium because they are comprised of (i) chemically active components, e.g., molecular motors, (ii) building blocks driven by suitably tailored external fields, or (iii) both, acting in tandem. Research on active matter has long sought to create such materials, but attempts to date, including those by our MRSEC, have been restricted to living systems that contain mechanoenzymes or limited classes of model systems (e.g. colloidal swimmers and chiral fluids). Read more »

Superseed: Electrical-optical quantum transduction

The goal of this superseed is to develop materials that can coherently transfer quantum information between electrical circuits and optical photons. To enable coherent electrical-optical coupling, we must identify and study suitable materials systems that can coherently support both types of excitation. Color centers, atom-like structures in wide-bandgap semiconductors, can serve as an ideal coherent interface between these domains. They have spin excitations whose energies can be tuned anywhere in the microwave frequency range, and also spin-dependent optical transitions, often in the telecom band. However, the very properties that make them coherent (localized spin states, small sizes) make them challenging to couple to, in both the microwave and optical domains. Rare earth ions such as erbium also must be embedded in specific host materials to preserve their properties, materials that are not always optimal for patterning into metamaterials or for integration with other systems. Here we will address two materials science pathways to realize coherent electrical-optical coupling via color centers: development of novel color centers, optimized host materials and electrical qubit coupling. Read more »