Public Release: 

New Center for Nanoscale Science established at Penn State

Penn State

Significant support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), combined with matching funds from Penn State University and the state of Pennsylvania plus a wealth of faculty expertise, has led to the creation of an interdisciplinary research center at Penn State called the Center for Nanoscale Science. NSF support for the center totals $9 million over the next six years, and matching monies greatly increase the funding total.

"It's a big addition to our programs, and a testament to the cooperation among faculty members and researchers at Penn State that NSF decided to fund this center," said Moses Chan, Evan Pugh Professor of Physics at Penn State and director of the new center. According to the NSF, the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) program that funded the center allows scientists to "undertake materials research of scope and complexity that would not be feasible under traditional funding of individual research projects."

Two years ago, a grant from NSF's MRSEC program helped to establish at Penn State the Center for Collective Phenomena in Restricted Geometries under Chan's direction. This center now has been absorbed into the new Center for Nanoscale Science, which has a significantly broadened focus that includes three combined and complementary areas of research. "What we found in the first couple of years with the previous MRSEC-funded center was that we really learned from each other by working together in an interdisciplinary and interdepartmental environment," Chan said. "We were thinking about things we had not considered before or did not know were possible. We look forward to the continuation and expansion of that exciting and productive process."

The latest award was given in response to a proposal submitted by a team of scientists from the College of Engineering, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and the Eberly College of Science at Penn State, led by Paul Weiss, professor of chemistry. While the Center for Nanoscale Science presents many research possibilities, the core of its thrusts remain at the fundamental level.

One of the new research thrusts--with a team of researchers led by William Hancock, assistant professor of bioengineering--focuses on designing, testing, and understanding molecular devices, particularly molecular motors. While molecular motors might possess much potential for eventual applications, the scientists hope to first fully understand such motors. "All kinds of molecular motors exist in nature, driving materials and processes in living organisms," Weiss said. "By gaining a better understanding of those processes, we hope to learn to move materials at the molecular scale in synthetic systems and environments."

With this latest endeavor, Penn State combines several of its strengths, among them the Penn State Nanofabrication Facility, guided by director Stephen Fonash, the Kunkle Chair Professor of Engineering Sciences, and associate director Jeff Catchmark. That relationship provides access to the National Nanofabrication Users Network, and combining the nanofabrication facility with what faculty members already know about selective chemistry provides a strong foundation as they attempt to get to smaller scales and chemical patters using nanofabrication tools and the ability to pattern complex functional materials a the nano scale. The teams working on the nanofabrication thrust are being led by Susan Trolier-McKinstry, professor of materials science and engineering.

Regular seminars featuring the researchers of the Center for Nanoscale Science occur each Monday at noon. Those sessions,which regularly attract 40 to 50 participants, enhance the collegial atmosphere at Penn State and provide the communication and consistency necessary to compliment ongoing research. Along with a collegial environment among faculty members and researchers, administrative support and the University's abundant resources played a big role in the creation of the Center for Nanoscale Science.

"We have options for education and outreach that other schools do not," Weiss said. "We can have a camp for middle-school students and, while we provide the materials for the sessions, an entire support system already exists at Penn State for administration of things related to camps. We can leverage that support, and that really shows up in the success of our proposals. We have a great sense of cooperation at all levels."

"The new thrusts of the Center for Nanoscale Science complement and exploit the strength at Penn State in self assembly and molecular electronics," Weiss said. "The new center ties together our ability to do nanofabrication from the top down with synthesis, connection, operation, and analysis of molecular devices from the bottom up. Our expertise in selective chemistry can be applied to advancing nanolithography, both for its own sake as well as to connect and operate molecular devices."

In addition to Weiss, those who provide Penn State's expertise in molecular electronics include: David Allara, professor of chemistry and polymer science; Thomas Mallouk, DuPont Professor of Materials Chemistry; Tom Jackson, Kirby Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering; Christine Keating, assistant professor of chemistry; and Theresa Mayer, associate professor of electrical engineering.

Much of the interdisciplinary research at Penn State, and much of the work that set the stage for centers at the University that attract such significant NSF funding, was initially guided by the Materials Research Institute (MRI) and its director, Carlo Pantano. As a result, the previous center funded by NSF's MRSEC program and the new Center for Nanoscale Science have built upon deep pockets of expertise in several colleges. For example, faculty members involved with the center, some of whom also are affiliated with the MRI, hold academic appointments in the Eberly College of Science, the College of Engineering, the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and the College of Agricultural Sciences. They include a mix of senior and junior faculty members at Penn State, administrators at the University, and faculty members from other institutions.

Additional team members associated with the center include: Vincent Crespi, the Downsbrough Professor of Physics and Materials Science; Ray Funk, professor of chemistry; Mark Horn, research associate in engineering science and mechanics; Mary Beth Williams, assistant professor of chemistry; George Oster of the University of California at Berkeley; James Tour of Rice University; and Paul Hallacher, director of research-program development for Penn State.

A significant testament to the scientific potential of the center came in the form of a recommendation by NSF to merge Penn State's previous MRSEC-funded center with the newly funded activities under a single six-year award. "NSF's recommendation makes us more efficient and allows us to focus on our science without having to worry about administering two different centers," Chan said.

Laboratories for chemical synthesis, photonic measurements, and electrical-transport measurements of nanoscale metallic and superconducting wires have been set up in Davey Laboratory to allow graduate students and faculty members from across the campus to work together on collaborative projects. The Center also has also established a strong cooperative working relation with the Penn State Materials Simulation Center for computational activities. As the Center grows, Penn State plans to enhance the capabilities of these laboratories.

At its core, the center promotes collegiality of the scientific community at Penn State with fundamental research as its primary goal. The center also stresses the inclusion of graduate students and features ambitious goals for the inclusion minorities and women as well as numerous education and outreach efforts for the general public. Plans for interaction with industry partners and national laboratories are underway, as well.

Overall, a total of 28 centers are currently supported by the NSF's MRSEC program with annual support of $51 million, which funds materials research plus education opportunities for undergraduate students, K-12 teachers and students, and the general public. More information about the MRSEC program can be found on the Web at

"This project provides a prime example of the University's goal to be first in the nation for the integration of education, research, and service," said Eva Pell, the University's Vice President for Research. "The center will help advance the goals of the University and the goals of the National Science Foundation by fostering an integration of education and research. It will provide undergraduate and graduate students with opportunities to advance knowledge and learn together with faculty members in a fundamentally important area of materials science that spans traditional disciplines."


Moses Chan:, (+)1-814-863-2622
Paul Weiss:, (+)1-814-865-3693
Barbara K. Kennedy (Penn State PIO):, (+)1-814-863-4682
Joshua A. Chamot (NSF PIO):, (703) 292-7730

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