Event lifts curtain on a bright future for materials research

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — You are reading this because of materials.  

Whether you are perusing this article on an electronic device driven by a semiconductor chip or via a paper printout, the ability to read these words is in a large part due to innovative materials research that led to a product in use in society. And the future holds more innovation in materials research, including at Penn State. The 2022 Materials Day event, presented by the Materials Research Institute with the theme “Materials Impacting Society,” featured a look at what might be on the horizon as far as materials research with positive societal impact.   

The event was held in October 2022 on the Penn State University Park campus and was attended by more than 300 materials researchers from Penn State, industry and government. The event featured keynote speakers, breakout sessions, the presentation of the 2022 Rustum and Della Roy Innovation in Materials Research Awards, and networking events. All of these had one thing in common: Discussion of what continues to be a very bright future for materials research at Penn State and beyond.  

“Every aspect of modern civilization has relied upon having the appropriate materials available to enable those advances,” said John Mauro, Dorothy Pate Enright Professor and associate head for graduate education in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, who gave one of the keynote addresses that focused on the United Nation’s International Year of Glass and trends in glass research. “Materials science and technology are key in addressing global challenges in energy, the environment, information technology, healthcare, transportation, sustainability and more.” 

Another point of discussion for Materials Day was the CHIPS and Science Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in early August. The law is designed to jumpstart America’s semiconductor industry so that it regains its share of the global market, including the development of regional hubs via partnerships with industry, government and other universities. This is also poised to inject millions of training and research dollars into growing the semiconductor workforce and supply chain, which is good news for Penn State given how well the University is positioned in materials research and workforce development.

Daniel Lopez, director of MRI’s Nanofabrication Laboratory and Liang Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and James Alexander Liddle, scientific director of the Microsystems and Nanotechnology Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, led a special session on the CHIPS and Science Act. Among the points discussed during this special session was the government’s vision for America’s semiconductor future, academia’s role in semiconductor industry development, what a regional mid-Atlantic hub that includes Penn State might look like, and leveraging Penn State resources such as the Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization for workforce development.  

Moreover, Materials Day also showcased that there is an exciting future for materials research beyond semiconductors, especially during the graduate student poster session and breakout sessions. Susan Trolier-McKinstry, Evan Pugh University Professor and Steward S. Flaschen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Electrical Engineering, was part of the panel for the breakout session “Wearables and Implantable for Health,” presented by MRI and the Social Science Research Institute. Trolier-McKinstry noted that the breakout sessions and posters gave an overall view of materials research as a net good for society, a peek into a bright future.  

“Beneficial materials research happens in so many ways that it is hard to narrow it down to a few examples,” said Trolier-McKinstry. “Materials research creates devices that lower the energy burdens with computation or cooling, improve health, and enable communications. The breakout session on wearables and implantables for health care pointed to opportunities to create sensors and systems that can enable healthy aging in place.” 

Reducing carbon emissions to fight climate change is another net benefit for society that materials research can offer. This was the focus of “Materials and Processes Challenges and Opportunities in the Transformation of Carbon and Hydrogen Economies,” a breakout session presented by MRI and the Institutes of Energy and the Environment.  

“In that session, discussions centered on how materials can be designed to reduce or even sequester carbon emissions,” said Zoubeida Ounaies, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Convergence Center for Living Multifunctional Material Systems. “For example, some of the panelists, including Jean-Paul Gevaudan, Assistant Professor of Architecture Engineering, shared some of their research in low CO2 cementitious materials for the built environment.” 

Beyond concrete, materials researchers look for ways to reduce carbon emissions in other common materials as well, another point of discussion at Materials Day. At his keynote, Mauro discussed how his research could potentially help glass manufacturers lower their carbon footprint. 

“In our group, we are developing a next-generation glass composition that will dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the glass industry, while at the same time improving the performance of everyday glass products,” Mauro said. 

Some of the most far-reaching materials research, so much so it seems almost science fiction, was presented in the “Regenerative Medicine and Engineering” session, presented by MRI and Huck Institutes of Life Sciences. Instead of using prosthetics and transplants, this session discussed the possibility of generating new body parts when old ones fail. This was also the subject of a keynote address at Materials day by Dan Hayes, professor of biomedical engineering and head of the Biomedical Engineering Department.   

“The regenerative medicine keynote talk by Dan Hayes and the related breakout session were really inspiring to me,” Ounaies said. “The potential to ‘grow’ and manufacture skin or other organs and harness the body’s healing abilities to address significant health issues, particularly for those harmed by fire or affected by severe disease, is extremely impactful. And the fact that the field brings together materials scientists, biologists, clinicians and engineers to make possible these discoveries is really exciting.” 

Yet another field within materials research that is expected to have a large societal impact in the years to come is artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. In the breakout session presented by MRI and the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences titled “Artificial Intelligence for Accelerating Materials Discovery, Design, and Synthesis,” a panel discussion where participants discussed how these technologies can benefit materials research. The panel members outlined how AI/machine learning can make experiments and data review more efficient and how researchers can use these new computing tools to shorten development time. This reduced development time can mean, in turn, that a beneficial product can make it to market more quickly.  

Given that MRI is an interdisciplinary entity, events such as Materials Day are important not only to raise awareness of the future for materials research through keynotes, breakout sessions and graduate student poster sessions. In addition, Ounaies said, it also offers a platform to spark the collaborations necessary to bring innovative ideas to fruition.  

“Materials Day is a unique opportunity to meet other materials researchers at Penn State, to network and have students learn about emerging research that they might not otherwise know about,” Ounaies said. “In fact, graduate students in my research group ended up reaching out to colleagues they met at Materials Day to explore possible collaborations and to learn about their approaches.” 

An important outcome of Materials Day was to inform a call for interdisciplinary research seed grants, jointly developed by Penn State’s research institutes. For more information including how to submit a proposal, which are due Jan. 17, please visit MRI’s seed grant page.