ARLINGTON, Va.—A scientist sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) has won a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation for his investigations into how the tiniest materials can improve electronics, medical devices and renewable energy—three critical areas for the Navy.
Northwestern University professor Dr. Mark Hersam is one of 21 recipients chosen this year for the MacArthur Fellows Program, which recognizes individuals who have displayed creativity in their fields and show promise for even bigger breakthroughs in the future.
"One of our tenets at ONR is to find and support exceptional scientific thinkers, and the relationship between ONR and Dr. Hersam is a perfect example of how a successful partnership can lead to new discoveries and inventions," said Dr. Walter Jones, ONR's executive director.
ONR program officer Dr. Chagaan Baatar currently sponsors Hersam's studies in nanoelectronics, which could lead to smaller, more powerful devices for surveillance, communications, solar power and health monitoring. Hersam is using graphene—a material stronger than steel and more flexible—to fashion novel devices that create new possibilities in support of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert's Navigation Plan to enhance the Navy's asymmetric capabilities across the physical domain, cyberspace and electromagnetic spectrum.
"Our Sailors and Marines need technology that can be taken and used anywhere they might have to go and fight," Baatar said. "This research not only addresses that need, but it could lead to other capabilities we haven't even imagined."
Hersam's relationship with ONR goes back to the 1990s, when he was a graduate student at the University of Illinois. In 2005, ONR offered Hersam a spot in its prestigious Young Investigator Program (YIP). He used the YIP award to research silicon-based molecular electronics, publishing his findings in several high-profile journals.
"By providing consistent and flexible funding, ONR has allowed my laboratory to pursue creative solutions to problems with long-term implications, thereby accelerating the rate of discovery and innovation," Hersam said.
Hersam went on to invent a purification process for carbon nanotubes—density gradient ultra-centrifugation—that is now the leading technique for producing highly pure, electronics-grade, single-wall carbon nanotubes.
With support from ONR's Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program, he also established a small business called NanoIntegris Inc., which was acquired by Canada-based Ramor Industries in 2012 and remains a top supplier of high-purity carbon nanotube materials.
MacArthur Fellows are selected based on three criteria: exceptional creativity; promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment; and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work. The recognition comes with a $625,000 award.
Several ONR-supported scientists previously have received the award, including Dr. Bonnie Bassler (2002, Princeton University); Dr. Daniela Rus (2002, MIT); Dr. Deborah Shiu-Lan Jin (2003, then with the National Institute of Standards and Technology); and Dr. Claire Tomlin (2006, University of California, Berekely).
ONR provides the science and technology necessary to maintain the Navy and Marine Corps' technological advantage. Through its affiliates, ONR is a leader in science and technology with engagement in 50 states, 70 countries, 1,035 institutions of higher learning and 914 industry partners. ONR employs more than 1,000 people, comprising uniformed, civilian and contract personnel, with additional employees at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C.