A magical dimension

Engineering at the nanoscale opens new doors to control optical, electronic and magnetic behaviors of materials and enable new multi-functional devices

Materials Day Panel 9584 DP Web
MIT MRL External Advisory Board Chair Julia Phillips [far left] moderated the Materials Day Symposium panel on “Frontiers in Materials Research.” She was joined by [from second left] Professors Karen Gleason, Caroline Ross, Timothy Swager, and Vladimir Bulović. The session was held Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017.

Newly discovered optical, electronic and magnetic behaviors at the nanoscale, multifunctional devices that integrate with living systems, and the predictive power of machine learning are driving innovations in materials science, a panel of MIT professors told the MIT Materials Research Laboratory [MRL] Materials Day Symposium.

“The development of new material sets is a key to the launch of new physical technologies,” Professor Vladimir Bulović, founding director of MIT.nano, said. “Once we get down to the nanoscale, we can start inducing quantum phenomena that were never quite accessible. So that scale between 1 nanometer, the typical size of a molecule, and on the order of, let’s say, 20 nanometers, that’s a magical dimension, where you can fine tune your optical, electronic and magnetic properties.”

Professor Caroline Ross, Associate Head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, cited a trend of harnessing nature to self assemble complex structures. “As we want to make things smaller and smaller, we need to have nature helping out,” she said. Ross noted progress on a range of new multi-functional materials that use, for example, extremely low voltage levels  to control magnetism or that use strain to control electronic properties. “All of these can enable new kinds of devices from those materials, so you can imagine devices which are smart that can have memory or logic functions, that can have analog instead of just digital type of behavior, that can work together to make smart circuits. … The difficulties of integrating those types of materials will be well paid for by the new sorts of functionality we can get from the devices we make.”

MIT MRL External Advisory Board Chair Julia Phillips moderated the Materials Day Symposium panel on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. Phillips is a former Sandia National Laboratories executive.

Professor Timothy Swager, Director of the Deshpande Center, said the expectation that new medical devices, for example, are compatible with our bodies demands different requirements than previous generations of electronics. “Thinking about how we interface complex dynamic chemically reactive systems with a material is really a very important area that, I think, will continue to be of importance and many good discoveries are going to come about as result of the interest in that area,” he said.

Associate Provost and Professor Karen Gleason spoke of the growing influence of machine learning on materials advances and the potential for one-dimensional and two-dimensional materials to provide better computers and memory storage. “It’s going be incredible for materials discovery as we learn how to use machine learning to predict what materials are optimal, but there’s also a credible place for materials in making this technology grow. Now computational power and memory and databases have gotten large enough that the predictive power is actually great.”

“The biggest component is you need the data so you need all of these sensors for accurate positioning, for detection of gases, for health. People want wearables,” Gleason said. “So I think this is an enormous field with tremendous impact in many different ways that materials can play.”

Bulović said while it takes a lot of perseverance to implement a new idea on the nanoscale, “It’s important to highlight that the invention of an idea happens in a moment, that eureka moment, but to actually scale that idea up so a million people can hold it in their hands, that takes a decade sometimes, especially if it’s in the materials space. Recognition of that is important in order to support the evolution of the new ideas.”

The annual Materials Day Symposium was hosted for the first time by the MIT Materials Research Laboratory, which formed from the merger of the Materials Processing Center and the Center for Materials Science and Engineering, effective Oct. 1, 2017. The MIT MRL will work hand-in-hand with MIT.nano, the central research facility being built in the heart of the MIT campus due to open in June 2018. MIT will receive a $2.5 million gift from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation to help develop a state-of-the-art cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) center to be housed at the MIT.nano facility.

“I don’t think we can underestimate the value of the tool sets in providing us the direction to what we need to do to advance life as we know it,” Bulović said. “I get struck by the example of DNA … It took 80-plus years to obtain the first inkling that there was something twisted inside our cells. Then we debated for another decade, is this thing really a twisted molecule inside our cells. If you add it all up, 80, 90 years of debate. Today that’s reduced to a couple of hours of work by one graduate student who can take a cell, pull out a nucleus, put it under a scanning tunneling microscope or cryo electron microscope and see a twisted molecule we call DNA now.”

Swager noted that biologists also will use MIT.nano. “They are going to be using the cryo-EM in the basement, so nano is not only for engineers and molecule builders. … I think that’s going to be really exciting and where that fusion leads us, who knows.”

Moderator Phillips asked the panelists what tool sets that would like to see in MIT.nano. Gleason said she would like to see chemical vapor deposition for thin polymer films. Ross said that MIT needs to be at the forefront for materials characterization tools. “We need to have the best tools to do the best work,” Ross said. She would like to see MIT.nano get the best possible electron microscope and advanced deposition tools for oxide molecular beam epitaxy and building up complex materials layer by layer. Swager said it is important for the shared facility to house tools for rapid prototyping and fabrication of devices.back to newsletter

Denis Paiste, Materials Research Laboratory
November 27, 2017

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