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Multi-disciplinary collaboratives key to successful research

Recent research from the research group of Professor

If today’s researchers are going to successfully tackle some of society’s most complex and important human health, energy and environmental problems, they need to draw on diverse expertise by collaborating with other university researchers and leading industrial partners.

Researchers in the Department of Chemistry have recently been extraordinarily successful in obtaining national funding for such collaborations through the establishment of major research centers.

“Some of the very best science is done when researchers with diverse backgrounds and perspectives work together to tackle the most challenging problems,” said Professor William Tolman, chair of the Department of Chemistry.

Critical to the success of the centers is the unique collegial and highly collaborative culture and climate fostered in the College of Science & Engineering (CSE), which supports and facilitates departments working and growing together.

Over the past two years, Department of Chemistry researchers have received more than $63 million from the Department of Energy (DOE) and National Science Foundation (NSF) for major research centers that involve University of Minnesota researchers, researchers from universities and colleges across the country, and industrial partners. Those centers include the:

  • Center for Sustainable Polymers (CSP), directed by Professor Marc Hillmyer—$20 million over five years, funded in 2014;
  • Inorganometallic Catalyst Design Center (ICDC), directed by Professor Laura Gagliardi—$12 million over four years, funded in 2014;
  • Nanoporous Materials Genome Center (NMGC), directed by Professor Ilja Siepmann—$8.1 million over five years, funded in 2012;
  • Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing (SciDAC) partnership, the Center for the Study of Charge Transfer and Charge Transport in Photoactivated Systems, directed by Professor Christopher Cramer—$5 million over five years, funded in 2012; and
  • Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), directed by Professor Timothy Lodge—$16.8 million funding for the past six years, and funding for the next six years is pending official approval from the NSF.

Center for Sustainable Polymers
A major NSF-funded research center is the Center for Sustainable Polymers, which draws together a remarkable group of scientists that includes researchers at the University of Minnesota, Cornell University, and the University of California, Berkeley, along with more than 32 companies from across the nation. The center integrates the research of experts in polymer, organic, biosynthetic, inorganic, computational, and materials chemistry. Their research is aimed at transforming how plastics are made and unmade. The CSP is focused on reducing the national reliance on finite feedstocks by developing technologically competitive, environmentally friendly, cost-effective plastics from natural, sustainable and renewable materials.

CSP researchers from the CSE’s departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering & Materials Science include Professors Frank Bates, Christopher Cramer, Marc Hillmyer, Thomas Hoye, Chris Macosko, Theresa Reineke, William Tolman, Jane Wissinger, and Kechun Zhang. Professors Geoff Coates and Will Dichtel, and Anne LaPointe, Ph.D., are leading the research at Cornell University. At the University of California, Berkeley, research collaborators are Professors Michelle Chang, John Hartwig and Dean Toste. Professor Mark Matsen from the University of Waterloo in Toronto, Canada, adds important research expertise in self-consistent field theory.

Developing bio-based plastics that will compete with or outperform those made from fossil resources is a complex scientific puzzle, the solution for which requires the diversity of expertise embodied by the the center’s researchers. For example, CSP researchers at the University of Minnesota recently used biosynthesis, chemical engineering, metabolic pathway engineering, materials science, and polymer chemistry to build new biobased block copolymers, a class of high-performance materials, from purely sugar-derived building blocks. This patented, breakthrough technology is being marketed to industries that can translate this discovery into innovative products.

Department of Energy Research Centers
The Department of Chemistry has three national research centers funded by the Department of Energy, which bring together experts from throughout the country to accelerate discoveries related to solving important energy issues.

The Inorganometallic Catalyst Design Center is a DOE Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC), focusing on the discovery of a new class of energy-science-relevant catalytic materials for energy- and atom-efficient conversion of shale-gas components.

“Our research could lead to new opportunities for energy efficiency and resource conservation,” Gagliardi said. “Our ultimate goal is to design and produce catalysts for reactions that will yield significant energy savings and environmental benefits compared to existing alternatives. A more immediate outcome of the research will be what we learn about structure-function relationships for new catalysts in a size range spanning the nano- and meso-scales.”

Gagliardi is developing theories to model chemical processes relevant to the energy needs of modern society. For example, she guides research aimed at designing new materials to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, through her participation in a second EFRC headquartered at the University of Notre Dame, new processes to recycle spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power reactors.

In addition to Gagliardi, five other professors from the Department of Chemistry are involved in the center, including Christopher Cramer, Connie Lu, Lee Penn, Andreas Stein, and Donald Truhlar. These researchers are all leaders in theoretical chemistry and inorganic chemistry—two fields in which the University of Minnesota excels. Other partners include Northwestern University, University of Washington, University of California-Davis, Clemson University, Argonne National Laboratory, Northwest National Laboratory, and Dow Chemical Company.

Before becoming director of the ICDC, Gagliardi was leading the Nanoporous Materials Genome Center, which is now being led by Professor Ilja Siepmann. This center is developing and using high-end computational tools to characterize and predict the performance of millions of advanced materials at the nano scale. These new materials have many potential applications related to energy, including the capture of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, and the storage of hydrogen. In addition, the group aims to improve catalysis and advanced chemical separations used in environmental research as well as those used in petroleum and biofuels processes to make them more efficient and environment-friendly.

The NMGC includes researchers from six other institutions including the University of California, Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Washington State University, Rice University, Georgia Tech, and Northwestern University. Co-investigators from the University of Minnesota include Cramer, Gagliardi and Truhlar from the Department of Chemistry, and Michael Tsapatsis from the Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science.

The Center for the Study of Charge Transfer and Charge Transport in Photoactivated Systems is funded through the DOE’s Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing (SciDAC) initiative. Researchers are developing methods and algorithms, and improving software tools needed for the reliable modeling of charge transfer and charge transport in photoactivated systems. Such processes are fundamental for solar energy capture, solar energy conversion, and photoactivated catalysis, both industrial and biological. Cramer is the center’s director, and co-investigators include Gagliardi (the founding director), Siepmann and Truhlar. Research partners include the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Materials Research Science and Engineering Center
The Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, one of the university’s oldest and largest multi-disciplinary research centers, is an exemplar for collaborative centers. It was originally funded in 1998, with grants renewed in 2002 and 2008. Possible renewed funding is currently pending from the NSF.

NSF MRSECs are structured to support interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary materials research that addresses complex and important science and engineering problems, which could not be addressed under traditional funding of individual research projects.

The university’s MRSEC has distinct research foci, clustered in what are called Interdisciplinary Research Groups. Each involves a number of faculty researchers from five different CSE departments, including Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Physics. Recent IRGs have focused on engineering multiblock polymers, organic optoelectronic interfaces, magnetic heterostructures, and nanoparticle-based materials.

The university’s MRSEC also helps researchers through its seed program, providing grants of $50,000 for new and innovative research projects. It is not unusual for seed-funded research to ultimately blossom into major research initiatives. For example, two of MRSEC’s new IRGs originated with seed funding.

“Our researchers are engaged in cutting-edge materials science research,” said Lodge. They are aided by the strong collaborations in the departments, among the different disciplines that their research represents, and by the shared facilities that are available at the University of Minnesota such as the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute, the CSE Characterization Facility, and the Minnesota Nano Center. The majority of MRSEC’s researchers are also engaged with the university’s Industrial Partnership for Research in Interfacial and Materials Engineering (IPrime), which fosters relationships with industrial scientists. More than 40 industrial partners are involved with IPrime.

Other collaboratives
In addition to his participation in the DOE-funded center, Professor Truhlar is co-principal investigator in two large grants, the specific aims of which are to understand and design heat shields for hypersonic vehicles. These grants include a $1.5 million Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative Grant, and a $1.7 million Air Force Office of Scientific Research grant.

While not based at the University of Minnesota, Professor Christy Haynes, an expert in nanotechnology, is involved in the multi-disciplinary Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN), which was created with a $1.75 million NSF Centers for Chemical Innovation grant. Researchers are investigating how nanoparticles interact with living ecological systems. In addition to the University of Minnesota, the CSN brings together the expertise of researchers from five different institutions, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Northwestern University, University of Illinois, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“Together, the array of major research centers involving Department of Chemistry faculty and students is enabling major, highly important scientific problems of broad scope to be addressed,” said Tolman. “The extraordinarily high level of research funding supports the efforts of a myriad students and post-doctoral associates who push the research forward and gain fundamental knowledge necessary to address society’s most critical needs.”

In addition to research, many of the centers are heavily engaged in outreach and education initiatives focused on training the next generation of scientists, which includes strong outreach to K-12 schools, and creating opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to participate in research.

For example, each of the CSP’s senior investigators will have the opportunity to mentor an undergraduate student in a 10-week summer research program that helps teach excited younger researchers about opportunities in science and engineering.

One of those CSP senior investigators, Professor Jane Wissinger, brings extensive experience working on diverse aspects of green chemistry. In addition to coursework development and integration of new green laboratory practices, she has developed experiments for undergraduate students focused on creating new polymers from biobased feedstocks. She shares her expertise with university professors and K-12 educators across the country.

Both the CSP and MRSEC are major supporters of the university’s Energy and U program, which brings more than 10,000 elementary-aged students to the University of Minnesota campus every year to teach them about energy and to show them that science is fun and something that they, too, can do. A focus for Energy and U is engaging students from underrepresented groups in the sciences.

MRSEC researchers offer a variety of weeklong summer camps for high school students, including a possible new Materials Week for Native American students. Many of the researchers also provide undergraduate research experiences for promising students from a national network of four-year colleges, minority-serving institutions, tribal colleges, and research universities.

Recently, the National Institutes of Health renewed the Chemical Biology Interface Training Grant (CBITG) for the next five years, which provides $1.2 million to fund graduate students working at the interface of chemistry and biology. Overseen by Professor Mark Distefano, this grant will support five to six students per year over the next five years. The students take courses in chemistry and biology, attend a seminar series devoted to the chemistry-biology interface, are provided with funds to attend outside scientific meetings and career-related activities, and are responsible for organizing and running a symposium involving speakers from academia and industry. The training grant involves faculty from the departments of Chemistry, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics, and Medicinal Chemistry.